At top of Canadian food chain, Leafs a test Jets better be at their best after being at their worst

Paul Maurice prefers not to use the term and claims it’s not how his Winnipeg Jets are viewing their three-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs this week.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/03/2021 (815 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Paul Maurice prefers not to use the term and claims it’s not how his Winnipeg Jets are viewing their three-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs this week.

While the Jets bench boss doesn’t view the Maple Leafs as a “measuring stick,” they do remain the one team ahead of Winnipeg in the Canadian standings. Depending on what happens over the next three games — with Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Saturday’s affairs all being played on the road at Scotiabank Arena — a good stretch of hockey for the Jets (read: wins) could very well have them knocking on the door for top spot in the division.

The Jets (15-8-1) are in second place, with 31 points, seven points behind the Maple Leafs (18-6-2), who have played two more games than Winnipeg.

The Jets got smoked 7-1 by Montreal on Saturday. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files)

“We had a real tough game and now we want to come back and get on the right track again, with the full awareness that we’re going to see a real quality team,” Maurice said following Monday’s practice.

“Every time you play a team that is one or two in the division, you know you have to be at your best to beat them. It’s different this year because there is only one first-place team you see, and you’re trying to chase them. In terms of measuring stick I think when you’ll come to the rink, you’ll know the other team has some really high-end guys on their team, and you have to be at your best to beat them.”

Both teams enter the game under less than ideal circumstances.

The Jets are coming off their worst game of the season, falling 7-1 to the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night. Nothing seemed to go right for the Jets, who were outshot, outplayed and outclassed for a majority of three periods.

The Maple Leafs enter the game following a pair of losses to the Vancouver Canucks, the first time this season they haven’t recorded at least a point in back to back games. The Jets have yet to lose two straight without earning at least a point in one of those games, setting up what should be a fun affair in what will be just the second time these teams meet this season.

“You could say it’s a measuring stick, but I think every team within our division can bring something different to the table. On any given night, all seven teams in our division could beat anybody, so one team gets hot for one or two weeks, they are going to create separation,” veteran forward Paul Stastny said.

“When you play each team nine or 10 times in one season you just have to worry about that individual series. For us, we lost the first game to them, but they are a whole different team and we’re a whole different team, but we’re just excited for the challenge.”

The Jets are more than seven weeks and 22 games removed from the last time they played the Maple Leafs — a 3-1 road loss back on Jan. 18, Winnipeg’s second regular-season game.

At the time, Winnipeg, as well as Toronto, was still trying to find their footing after a brief training camp, one without any exhibition games.

A lot has changed for the Jets since then, including a blockbuster trade that saw Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic shipped to Columbus for centre Pierre-Luc Dubois. They’ve also been more consistent over time, even if some of the underlying numbers aren’t flattering.

Consider: before the drubbing at the hands of Montreal, the Jets were winners in six of their previous seven games, including three victories over the same Canadiens that fed them their dinner on Saturday.

“We’re getting a lot closer to the identity and the way we want to play — that’s big, that’s fast and kind of imposing our will and that’s from controlling the puck and playing with pace. That’s going to be something we try and do,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said. “They’ve lost a couple (games), but they’ve had a great start to the year and we know it’s going to be a tough test for us and we’re looking forward to that. It’s gonna be a fun three-game set.”

Adam Lowry (right) says the team is getting closer to the identity and the way we want to play: big, fast and imposing. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Lowry pointed to the Leafs depth up and down the line-up, similar to that of the Jets. Like Winnipeg, Toronto had some incredible skill up front, highlighted by the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander. With offensive talent like that, the Maple Leafs can make you seriously pay off your mistakes, particularly with how effective they are at using their speed to transition up ice.

In a normal season, under normal circumstances, the Jets and Maple Leafs would meet, on average, twice per season — once at home, another game on the road. But with COVID-19 throwing a wrench into the NHL’s plans for a 2020-21 season, they meet nine times. That’s more than the last three seasons combined.

Dating back to the 2017-18 campaign, Toronto has earned the edge over Winnipeg, winning five of the last seven games (both of the Jets victories came on the road). There is a familiar pattern in this matchup, though, and it’s similar to when the Jets and Edmonton Oilers meet. That’s to say they’re high-scoring affairs.

In those seven games, there’s been an average of nearly six goals scored per game. The Jets will be trying to prevent such a fluid back and forth from unfolding, and will try to limit their mistakes in a much more controlled game plan.

“Both their team and our team have made real improvements in the last month, from training camp to now, in the style of play,” Maurice said.

“I’m thinking in this first game the test here is which team has come farther along in limiting the other offensive players. I think that’s kind of what will be on display. I still think both teams are going to get their chances. They’re both going to generate. It will be who can control the other team for the longest?”

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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