Maple Leafs Strike First but Falter Versus the Jets

Winnipeg (3) Toronto (1) Final

By: Gordon Brown

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Toronto entered Saturday having won 14 of their last 15 games on home ice, and with another victory, would tie the single-season franchise record for points. The Leafs began the night with 101 points, just two shy of the record set at 103.

With four games remaining, including tonight, it also happened to be the second leg of Toronto’s final back-to-back of the season. A back-and-forth affair saw the Maple Leafs prevail 5-4 over the Islanders just one night prior to travelling home for a date with the red-hot Winnipeg Jets. 

Coincidentally, only two Canadian teams have and will qualify for the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs; Those being Toronto and Winnipeg. The speculation is that these two might even meet in the coveted Stanley Cup Final…  

That might be getting slightly ahead of ourselves but it might not be the biggest stretch of the imagination, either.

At this morning’s skate, Patrik Laine was not overly thrilled with the number of reporters on hand and was soon reminded it could have been his everyday routine if he were selected 1st overall. Regardless, I think it’s safe to say both cities are quite happy with how their selections have panned out. 

The 19-year-old Finn is in the midst of the worst scoring drought of his sophomore campaign—a five-game goalless drought.

Backup net-minder, Curtis McElhinney, 5-1-0 in his six previous starts for Toronto, went head-to-head in a goaltending matchup with Vezina Trophy candidate, Connor Hellebuyck.

Additionally, either bench welcomed a player back from injury as Leo Komarov (TOR) and Jacob Trouba (WPG) suited up for their respective teams.

 Once the puck was dropped, it felt as if the action was non-stop between the pair of high-powered offences. The score remained deadlocked at 0-0 after the opening twenty minutes and it wasn’t for a lack of opportunities. Several prime scoring opportunities were turned away by the masked magicians in between the pipes.

Patrik Laine’s five-game goalless drought appeared to be weighing on the 19-year-old sniper, considering he did not record a shot on goal in the first despite multiple point-blank opportunities.

The second period would tell a slightly different story with the conception of the game’s first goal, courtesy of Patrick Marleau’s 26th of the season. An early power play opportunity lasted all-but 0:20 seconds, when Marleau redirected a feed from Auston Matthews past Hellebuyck to break the ice.

That marks six-straight games with a point (3G, 4A) for Auston Matthews since his return. Jake Gardiner also picked up an assist on the play.

The Jets would counter with two goals of their own, beginning with Josh Morrissey’s equalizer off of a blast from the point. The Jets continued to press and managed to take a 2-1 lead just moments later thanks to another defenceman—Dustin Byfuglien. 

Mark Scheifele decided to take a run at Curtis McElhinney after the whistle, prompting Jake Gardiner to retaliate and gift the Jets a power play opportunity. Enter, Dustin Byfuglien, who went on to punish Curtis McElhinney and the Maple Leafs with another blistering shot from the point. Paul Stastny provided an impeccable screen to distort McElhinney’s vision, allowing Byfuglien’s attempt to sail into the top corner.

Winnipeg’s momentum did not stop there and by the end of the second frame, would possess a 3-1 advantage. Andrew Copp recorded his 6th at the 17:24 mark to send his team into the second intermission with a head full of steam and hungry for more.

The Jets proceeded with 1-3-1 defence for the remainder of the game and the Leafs simply could not muster a counterattack through the neutral zone, not to mention the offensive zone.

Toronto was being easily outworked by a team they should be able to compete with pound-for-pound. The score remained stagnant and eventually, the Jets walked away with a decisive 3-1 victory when it was all said and done.

When asked about his team’s effort tonight, Patrick Marleau preached hard work to finish off the regular season,

“Obviously there’s something we would have liked to do better, but we’ll learn from it and move on … You have to be sharp each and every night, sometimes the details of the game make the difference.”

Luckily Toronto will have three more tests before the Stanley Cup Playoffs commence on April 11th.

With his assist tonight, Jake Gardiner moves within a single point of the 50-plateau for the very first time in his career. Gardiner will likely join Morgan Rielly in that regard, to become the first team to boast two 50+ point defencemen since the 2015-16 Nashville Predators—who did it with Roman Josi (61) and Shea Weber (51).

It will be a quick turnaround for Toronto, who will stay home and return to the Air Canada Centre on Easter Monday for a tilt with the Buffalo Sabres. No practice tomorrow due to the back-to-back. 

Puck drop is set at 7:00 p.m. EST Monday night. 

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Photo Credit: @MapleLeafs