TORONTO — It’s a shame, really, that the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs don’t hook up more often. Because the star-studded, offensively gifted lineups of the two Canadian clubs just seem to bring out the best — and worst — of each other whenever they do.
Case in point was Wednesday night’s wild and wacky affair at Scotiabank Arena, which will go down as a 4-3 shootout victory for the Jets after one of the most exciting three-on-three overtimes you’ll ever see somehow didn’t produce a winner.
"Three-on-three, I can’t use the words that came into my head... a free for all of fecal matter. It’s a s--t show out there and that’s great," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, who had nearly lost his voice by the time this one ended.
"I didn’t care for three-on-three when it came in but I think it’s outstanding. If you’re going to spend money to come see a game, somebody should win and somebody should lose."
In this case, it was Blake Wheeler sealing it for the visitors in the fourth round of the shootout, which only became necessary after Mark Scheifele connected on a "must-score" opportunity in the third round. Patrik Laine also lit the lamp in the skills competition, while Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza scored for the home team.
"You saw on the first three guys he was playing pretty deep in the net. So tried to show him a little bit of speed and back him off, and then slow down. Our goalies tell us all the time, it’s so hard when you’re stopped on the goal-line and trying to read what’s coming next. From there the goalies are just trying to get big and take away the bottom part of the net, and that five-hole can get open. I was able to sneak it through just quick enough," Wheeler said of his winner.
Winnipeg improves to 24-16-4, including 2-0-1 on this four game road trip. Toronto falls to 24-15-6.
"For the good of the game, we shouldn’t play at all. The turnovers in that two-game series might be record-breaking," Maurice said in jest about the wide-open games between the Jets and Leafs, which included a 6-3 Toronto victory last week in Winnipeg.
The Jets appeared on their way to a regulation victory in this one, only to have Matthews blast a one-timer past Connor Hellebuyck with just 14 seconds remaining in the third period to tie it up. But rather than get demoralized by the late goal, the Jets came out flying in the three-on-three session.
Highlights included Jack Roslovic being stopped by a sprawling Frederik Anderson on a two-on-none feed from Laine, and Scheifele denied on a clear-cut breakaway.
"It was nuts. There were so many opportunities at both ends. I couldn’t believe the game didn’t end in overtime," said Jets forward Mason Appleton.
This was the 11th game of the season to go beyond 60 minutes for the Jets. They’re 4-3 in overtime and 3-1 in shootouts.
As for regulation, the Jets were looking to build off a solid victory on Monday night in Montreal, and they were gifted an early lead to help the cause. Andersen tripped and fell as he tried to come out of his net to stop a dump-in from Wheeler, and Nikolaj Ehlers quickly fired the puck into the empty net for his 18th of the season just four minutes into the game.
The lead was shortlived, as Matthews scored his 30th just 56 seconds later, finishing off a nifty pass from Mitch Marner.
With Wheeler in the box for holding late in the period, Appleton stole the puck off John Tavares in the neutral zone and earned himself a breakaway, beating Andersen for his first of the season. It’s the second straight game Winnipeg’s penalty killing, ranked last in the NHL, has scored a short-handed goal. They finished the night three-for-three.
"It’s just a product of hard work, making a play on the puck and then finishing at the other end. I saw an opportunity to jump on it in the neutral zone and poked it off his stick. I knew he was in my back pocket the whole way. Just being able to make a quick play on the net, and it found the back of the net," said Appleton.
Toronto tied it six minutes into the middle frame, just seconds after a Winnipeg power play expired. Dmytro Timashov, who was serving a too-many-men penalty, stepped out of the box and joined a three-on-one-rush that came courtesy of an ugly Andrew Copp giveaway. The Jets forward was in the offensive zone and blindly threw the puck back to the point, where no teammate was standing, giving Toronto numbers going the other way. It was a rare gaffe from the normally defensively responsible player.
Scheifele always loves coming home, and the Jets centre made sure his latest trip to Toronto was a memorable one, putting his team in front midway through the second period. His 21st of the season came on a fast-moving breakout that turned into a four-on-one for the Jets. Scheifele took a nice pass from linemate Kyle Connor and ripped a shot past Andersen.
That set the stage for Matthews’ late-game heroics and the dramatic overtime and shootout.
"That’s the nature of the beast. Auston Matthews had a pretty good shot. You have to give credit where credit is due. They had a good play and made a good shot," said Scheifele.
Hellebuyck made 25 saves for his 20th win of the season. It was a nice redemption game for the No. 1 goalie, who was pulled after two periods last week against the Leafs.
Maurice tweaked his lineup for the game, with Jansen Harkins drawing in for Gabriel Bourque. That gave the Jets five players from their 2015 draft class in the lineup for the first time ever — Harkins, Connor, Appleton, Roslovic and Sami Niku.
The road trip concludes tonight as the Jets take on the Boston Bruins.
MOMENT OF SILENCE — prior to the game, players on both teams lined up on their respective blue-lines for a moment of silence to pay tribute to the 63 Canadians who died Tuesday night after a flight bound for Kyiv crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard.
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Updated on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 9:38 PM CST: Adds photos
11:05 PM: Full write through