The Winnipeg Jets might have lost more than just a hockey game Thursday night. The play of their Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender, the health of their key shutdown centre and any remaining hopes of winning the all-Canadian division took a major hit as well.
Yes, a 5-3 loss to Toronto at Bell MTS Place was costly on several fronts. Connor Hellebuyck was pulled after giving up three goals on six shots just 11:59 into the opening period, Adam Lowry was knocked out of the game with an unpenalized head shot, and the Jets (27-16-3) are now a full six points behind the Maple Leafs (29-13-5) with just 10 games left in the regular season.
All of which might explain why coach Paul Maurice was not in a very chatty mood following the contest, unhappy with a whole host of things he'd just witnessed.
"I didn’t like the first two. I didn’t think the third one was a whole lot better for him and I was looking to change momentum," Maurice said of sending Hellebuyck to a rare early shower in favour of backup Laurent Brossoit.
When we last saw the Jets, they were going through the motions in a lacklustre 3-0 loss to Edmonton last Saturday, their first game back after a lengthy, successful road trip. Fatigue was cited as the primary reason for their uninspired performance.
After two days away from the rink, and two full days of all-too-rare practice time, Maurice thought his group would be raring to go against a Toronto outfit that limped into town having lost five straight games, including two straight to the COVID-19 stricken Vancouver Canucks.
Yeah, about that.
Auston Matthews scored on the first shot of the night, just 27 seconds into the contest, on a mid-range wrist shot. The Jets blue-line pair of Derek Forbort and Neal Pionk gave Matthews far too much time and space to take a long stretch pass from Mitch Marner. As good as a sniper as Matthews is -- this was his league-leading 34th of the year -- you'd expect Hellebuyck to make the save more often than not.
Things quickly went from bad to worse as Wayne Simmonds made it 2-0 at 1:18 when his backhander -- just the second shot of the game -- beat Hellebuyck from in tight.
"Honestly, Connor is, we think, the best goalie in the world and just one of those nights where a couple snuck by him early," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who returned to the lineup after missing the past six games with a concussion.
To their credit, the Jets didn't go away quietly. Mark Scheifele cut the deficit in half at 3:19, snapping a shot past Jack Campbell. Andrew Copp tied it up at 10:26, poking home a loose puck after a feed from Mason Appleton, and this looked like one of those games where the first team to double-digits would win.
"You look up a minute (18) into the game and you’re down 2-0. Not good, but if you wanna take it the other way you’ve got 58 minutes to kind of work you way back in the game, so I thought our response was good to tie up it, kind of level out the game and make it tighter," said Copp.
But Toronto regained the lead, this time for good, at 11:59 when Joe Thornton's shot was tipped by Jason Spezza. Maurice had seen enough. Hellebuyck's night was over.
"It's 2-2. They didn't run all over us. They got two pucks to the net that we didn't like. Certainly we weren't better than they were, but I don't know how much better they were than us. It was 2-2 early enough in that game," Maurice said of making the switch.
The comeback got a bit tougher when Lowry was felled by Toronto's Alex Galchenyuk late in the first period, taking a blindside shoulder to the head. He ended up playing one more shift, but wasn't on the bench to start the second period. Maurice had no update on Lowry's immediate status, nor could he explain why the officials on the ice gave that a free pass.
That forced Maurice to juggle his remaining 11 forwards, which got further depleted later in the game when Mathieu Perreault was drilled by Thornton away from the puck, also in the chops. Interference was called on the play, and Perreault went to the dressing room for several shifts, ultimately returning.
Mitch Marner made it 4-2 just past the midway mark of the middle frame, blasting a rolling puck under the crossbar. That proved to be the game-winner, as Kyle Connor brought the Jets back within a goal with just over two minutes to play in the second period. His team-leading 22nd came after a great hustle play by Wheeler, who won a foot race with Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly, then won a puck battle to set up Connor.
"It was good, felt good. Obviously, we have a lot of chemistry there between the three of us. Something to build on," Wheeler said of returning to the familiar spot on the right wing with Connor and Scheifele.
The Jets would get no closer, despite plenty of good looks in the third. That included a partial breakaway by Pierre-Luc Dubois which was stopped by Campbell, and a barrage of rubber with Brossoit pulled for an extra attacker.
Marner sealed the victory with an empty-net goal with five seconds left on the clock.
"I think we were chasing the game. Keep in mind that we hadn’t played a game in four days. It’s tough to do, just to come out and pick right up where you left off. So it took us a period to get into it. I thought the back half of the game we played a pretty good game but unfortunately it was just too far out of reach for us," said Wheeler.
"Had a chance to tie it up at the end. It’s obviously a team that’s been first in the NHL for a long time, on a little bit of a skid and they packed it pretty tight in the third."
Campbell finished with 34 saves, while Brossoit stopped 25 of 26 pucks he faced in relief.
"Definitely not the start we wanted, but we kept on clawing back and tried to get some chances. We fought right to the end and made it a close one. It would have been nice to get that one into overtime," said Scheifele.
This marks just the second time all year the Jets have lost two straight games in regulation. They'll look to avoid the first three-game losing streak of the season when they host the Maple Leafs in a re-match on Saturday night.
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.