The Winnipeg Jets ended their regular season on a high note Friday, wrapping up what's been a unique year with a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Bell MTS Place.
Winnipeg had little to play for, as did Toronto, but the Jets felt it was important to have a strong showing before entering a best-of-seven playoffs series against the Edmonton Oilers that kicks off Wednesday night on the road. Given what the Jets have been through over the last month, losing nine of their last 11 games, it was also important to leave with a victory.
The Jets have now won back-to-back games for the first time in a month, when they beat the Ottawa Senators and Leafs back on Apr. 14 and 15, respectively. Indeed, it's been a long 56-game season owing to COVID-19, and there seemed to be a noticeable sense of relief by the players after the game.
"It’s been a really interesting year for a lot of reasons. The overriding feeling after tonight is just excitement, excited about having an opportunity to compete in the playoffs," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "That’s all you play for, you play for a chance to play in the playoffs, one of 16 teams that has a chance to win it all and nobody picked us to be alive right now so we have a lot to be proud of for the way we competed in the regular season and a lot to look forward to."
With the win, the Jets finished with 30-23-3 record, good enough for third place in the Canadian Division. The Leafs, who entered the night with points in seven straight games and with first place already locked up, drop to 35-14-7.
Some notable takeaways from the game included Kyle Connor putting forth a two-goal game, giving the Jets top line, which also includes Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, six even-strength goals over the past two games. The trio had four in a 5-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday.
"So there’s an excitement there between the three of them. They're playing the game the right way and then also they're playing really fast. And Kyle's feeling it. He's back. So each one of them as an individual is starting to peak, it looks like, and then you put the three of them together and they understand each other, you start to get that synergy that would make them greater than individuals," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said.
"They're pretty good right now at both ends of the rink and they're starting to peak. And I understand what the game was tonight — I'm not over-evaluating the goals they scored in this game — but they'll push harder too. That chemistry is there. It's always kind of been there, but they've got it all moving in the right direction now."
Mason Appleton also found the back of the net for a second straight game, playing on a line with Adam Lowry and Dominic Toninato, who took Andrew Copp's spot on the third line after Copp was given the night off to rest. The Leafs were also without Mitch Marner, their dangerous set-up man who is fourth in league scoring with 67 points, including 47 assists.
Connor Hellebuyck turned aside 34 shots for the win, while Jack Campbell registered 20 saves in the loss.
Maurice mentioned earlier in the week that with both clubs headed to the playoffs, and with no chance to move up or down in the standings, he didn't expect a spirited affair. He noted these types of games have some sort of gentleman's agreement, that staying healthy trumped any need to take liberties against one another.
That wasn't how this one started, as Leafs defenceman Justin Holl didn't get the memo, delivering a cross check into the rib area of Jets forward Paul Stastny on the game's opening shift. Stastny was slow to get to the bench, where he laboured in visible pain for a few moments before retreating to the locker room. Stastny returned a few minutes later, and played the rest of the first and second periods before sitting out the third. Pierre-Luc Dubois was also banged up in the third and had to leave the game.
Both players were held out for cautionary reasons and were expected to be good to go for playoffs, Maurice said.
Pierre Engvall opened the scoring 7:15 into the first period, flying up the left side of the ice before besting Hellebuyck glove-side. It was a breakdown by the Jets defence to allow Engvall that much real estate but it was also exactly the kind of save Hellebuyck will need to make if the Jets plan on beating the high-powered Oilers in the first round.
Winnipeg had a few chances to even the game in the opening 20 minutes, including a point-blank shot from Stastny in the slot — through a crowd no less — that Campbell was somehow able to track. The Jets would eventually even the score just 73 seconds into the second period, with Appleton's 12th of the season.
That sparked what would be three-goal affair in the middle frame, with the score tied 2-2 after 40 minutes.
Ilya Mikheyev made it 2-1 Toronto just a few minutes after the goal by Appleton, who beat Campbell top shelf thanks to a nice setup from Lowry. Mikheyev didn't need to be nearly as flashy: he banged home a juicy rebound by Hellebuyck after he was left all alone in front thanks to a missed assignment by Jordie Benn and bad positioning by Logan Stanley.
The Jets tied it up later in the period on a beautiful play from Connor, who now has goals in three straight games after going pointless in the previous seven. Connor took a pass from Mark Scheifele on a 2-on-1 and with Campbell cheating a bit to defend him, Connor made a move to the backhand that left him with an open net.
Connor continued that scoring touch in the third period, one-timing a Wheeler pass from a tough angle that made it just under the cross bar. Jansen Harkins eventually iced the game with an empty-net goal with 42 seconds remaining.
The focus now shifts to the coming days, when the Jets will get a chance to prepare for the Oilers in what will be a tough matchup. The Oilers have beat the Jets in seven straight games and have one of the best overall records in the NHL over the past few months.
"We’ve got to tackle that, obviously, in the next handful of days," Wheeler said. "I don’t have the answer (to stopping the Oilers) for you today, but we definitely have a lot of respect for their team and the season they’ve had and they present some unique challenges and it’s going to be a competitive series so it’s one we’re looking forward to."
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.