Mark Scheifele cost his team Saturday night with an extended second-period shift and a half-hearted line change which led to a pivotal goal by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But it’s what happened next that raised plenty of eyebrows both inside and outside Bell MTS Place: Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice stapled his franchise centre and leading scorer to the pine for the rest of the frame, sending a surprising shot across the bow.
It didn’t change the end result — Winnipeg ultimately fell 4-1 to Toronto, further dashing their hopes of catching the first-place Maple Leafs in the all-Canadian division.
"We have some things that we value as a group. Mark’s a real competitive guy. Sometimes that gets the best of him I think. We just need to adhere to our core values," Maurice explained of the move.
The Jets PR staff opted not to make Scheifele available to speak with media following the game.
"That’s stuff that belongs in our room," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. "Little nuances of why things happen within our group, that belongs within the dressing room."
Winnipeg is now 27-17-3, having lost three straight games in regulation for the first time all season. They fall eight points back of Toronto, which limped into town late last week on a five-game winless streak, only to sweep the Jets in back-to-back outings and improve to 30-13-5.
After spotting the Maple Leafs a quick 2-0 lead in the last game, it was the Jets who struck first this time. Nikolaj Ehlers got his stick on a perfect Paul Stastny feed just 39 seconds into the game to give the home team the strong start they were seeking.
It didn’t last long.
Joe Thornton tied it at 4:04, using his long stick from behind the Jets net to beat Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, barely, with a wraparound.
Mitch Marner gave Toronto the lead at 11:40, taking advantage of a bizarre deflection off a stanchion to score what was basically an empty-netter. Jake Muzzin dumped the puck in from outside the blue-line, and Hellebuyck went to retrieve it from behind his net, only to have it ricochet right to a wide-open Marner.
"There’s not much for me to say, honestly. It’s bad luck. It’s all I can really say," said Hellebuyck of what proved to be the flukey game-winner.
Hellebuyck has now been burned three times in similar fashion this year, with the other two happening in Montreal.
"We’ve been a pretty resilient group. We’ve bounced back from adversity all year. A play like that’s gone against us quite a bit, but there’s still a lot of hockey to be played. I mean that wasn’t the end of the game right there. We just didn’t do a good enough job of generating after that point," said Wheeler.
Indeed, the real dagger came in the second period, with Muzzin (interference) and Dylan DeMelo (embellishment) serving matching minors and the teams playing four-on-four. Scheifele stayed out for more than a minute of action, then clearly dogged it back to the bench as Toronto turned the puck the other way, ultimately resulting in two-on-one. William Nylander set-up John Tavares who beat Hellebuyck to make it 3-1.
The goal came at 7:07 of the middle frame. And Scheifele didn’t see the ice again until the third period. Although he and his teammates had plenty of jump, they couldn’t get any more pucks past the rock-solid Jack Campbell.
Alex Kerfoot sealed the victory with an empty-net goal with 90 seconds left on the clock.
Hellebuyck, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, was coming off his own benching, having been pulled after surrendering three goals on six shots against Toronto in Thursday’s 5-3 loss. He let everyone know the following day he wasn’t happy with it. Hellebuyck certainly wasn’t at fault for this latest loss, making 33 saves on the night. Campbell finished with 25 stops.
There was plenty of bad blood in this one, especially following a Rasmus Sandin reverse-hit on Wheeler in the first period that sent the veteran forward, who was playing his second game since suffering a concussion, to the dressing room. No penalty was called on Sandin — replays suggested it likely was interference, given Wheeler didn’t have the puck. But Kyle Connor was given a minor for throwing several punches at Sandin in response.
"I love teammates sticking up for each other. The refs didn’t think it was a call, so it must not have been. That’s really all you can say about it," said Wheeler, who returned to the game to start the second period.
There were also several run-ins between unlikely combatants in Thornton and Ehlers, with the pair frequently trying to get at each other. Following the game, Thornton suggested the league would want to look at one particular slash delivered by the slick Jets winger.
"I think NHL player safety’s going to look at that slash and not be happy. That’s what started everything, and I’m not going to dive or anything like that and throw up my hands. But they’ll probably take a look at that. I’m sure something will get done," said Thornton.
There was plenty of other physical play as well — Mathieu Perreault delivered a flying hit on Tavares that was whistled for charging, Pierre-Luc Dubois delivered a late hit on Auston Matthews that was called for interference, and Dubois and Wayne Simmonds both got 10-minute misconducts near the end of the contest.
In other words, it felt a bit like playoff hockey, which isn’t a surprise with the two teams on a potential collision course next month. The fact they’ve now played each other nine times this season also adds to the bad blood.
"I like the edge in the game. I like the barking between benches, barking at the refs. I thought that was the best part of the game. We had some bite, we got our heart rates up, the language went right down the tubes. It was right, it was good. I liked that," said Maurice.
Snapping this skid won’t be easy, as the second-place Jets welcome the third-place Oilers — who trail by a single point with a game in hand — to town for a pair of games on Monday and Wednesday, then begin their final road trip of the year against fourth-place Montreal on Friday.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.