WINNIPEG - Tonight might be the eighth meeting of the season between the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, but even still, there is plenty the two teams don't know about each other.
Even after tonight's game, neither side will have all the answers.
The reason? Both teams made acquisitions at the trade deadline. Toronto is without starting goaltender Frederik Andersen and forward Zach Hyman. Meanwhile, the Jets are trying to get a look at different line combinations.
"There is always that little adjustment around the trade deadline time, but you always feel you've got enough runway at the other end," said Maurice. "You're not going to see the Toronto Maple Leafs until very probably, if you're fortunate enough to get in to the playoff round, when Hyman comes back, Andersen comes back, then you get a look at the time.
"That's why, I'll say it now, preservation of your club is always foremost for the coach. You won't weight the results of these games as too foretelling on what it would look like if we would meet a month from now."
Overall, Winnipeg is 3-2-2 against Toronto this season as they continue their efforts to chase down the Maple Leafs for top spot in the North Division.
That chase, however, isn't a two-horse race.
The Edmonton Oilers sit right behind the Jets in the standings, and Maurice expects the on-ice intensity over the final 11 games on the Jets schedule to reflect that.
"Montreal could eventually get there, but realistically the top three that are fighting for that first position. I think it ramps up hard here tonight and it keeps going," said Maurice. "I've felt our North Division looked more like the East. I think you're going to find it's going to start moving toward what the Central Division looks like as we get closer to the end of the season."
The last time the Jets (27-15-3) took on Toronto, Winnipeg left Scotiabank Arena with a 5-2 victory. The Maple Leafs are winless in five games (that loss to the Jets was the third of those five), but still hold a four-point cushion for first place in the North.
Including tonight, the Jets have two consecutive games against Toronto (the second comes on Saturday). They could pull into a tie for top spot in the North, but in order to do that, they have to slow down Toronto's potent offence, which averages 3.24 goals per night.
"Make them defend as much as possible. They're obviously dynamic off the rush -- especially if they get o-zone possession, they're pretty dangerous in some of their movement and getting their D activated," said Jets forward Andrew Copp. "So limit those rush opportunities and then control the middle of the ice. If they do start to get that motion, kind of leave it to the outside and make sure that we're picking up sticks and bodies in front of the net, letting (Connor Hellebuyck) see everything."
Based on the line rushes from the past two days of practice, the Jets expect captain Blake Wheeler to return from missing the last six games with a concussion.
In addition, defenceman Jordie Benn could make his Jets debut tonight, after spending Wednesday's practice paired with Dylan DeMelo.
The line rushes on Wednesday looked like this:
Those two days of practice, which followed two consecutive days off, have the Jets feeling refreshed as they prepare for tonight's game. The practice sessions were also valuable, as it's difficult to anticipate just how many of those remain in the regular season.
"Prior to the schedule changes, we all had that three-day break originally circled on the calendar," said Josh Morrissey. "I think it's critical to get rest and when they are opportunities to practice, I do think it's valuable to stay sharp and work on some special teams, for example. We'll probably take advantage of some of those opportunities."
As the Jets get their trade deadline acquisition into the line-up for the first time, the Maple Leafs will do the same.
Forward Nick Foligno, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets, will be on the left wing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Like the Jets, Toronto has a lot of skill and depth among their forwards. For Maurice, that means match-ups won't be a central theme tonight.
Sometimes, the line you expect to give you trouble is just a bit off that night, and it's a different trio that needs attention. Or, the opposition's shut down pair of defencemen are having a tough night, and the opposing coach makes a change.
All these things factor in, but what mostly allows Maurice to avoid locking in on a match-up is the maturity of Winnipeg's forwards.
"We haven't been a team that's heavily matched this year as I would've two or three years ago. At that time, I had a bunch of 18, 19, and 20-year-old forwards that I was trying to hide at times," said Maurice. "Now I don't. I'll run Thompson's line in the D-zone against Matthews tonight if it's on the left side and that's the right thing, and I won't think twice about it."
Connor Hellebuyck gets the call in goal for the Jets, while Jack Campbell will counter for Toronto.
Puck drop is set for 6 pm CT.
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com
The Winnipeg Jets continue a five-game home stand with the first of two consecutive games against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Jets play 10 of their last 13 games of the season on home ice.
The Jets are 6-for-19 (31.6%) on the power play in their past five games.
Kyle Connor (21) and Nikolaj Ehlers (20) are two of 13 players in the NHL to reach the 20-goal mark this season.
Nikolaj Ehlers (3G, 5A) and Neal Pionk (8A) lead the Jets in scoring against Toronto this season with eight points in seven games.
Mark Scheifele is tied for eighth in NHL scoring with 52 points (17G, 35A) in 45 games this season. He's one of only five players in the NHL this season with 17 goals and 35 assists.
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