WINNIPEG -- After playing only four home games in the month of November, the Winnipeg Jets (11-12-2) have seven home dates in December, beginning with tonight’s match up against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs (8-11-5).
It’s the second meeting of the season between the two, with the Jets prevailing by a score of 4-2 back on November 4 at Air Canada Centre.
Since that time, the Maple Leafs have gone 6-3-3, including a 3-0 win over Edmonton on Monday.
“They’ve had a real nice push with their goaltending over that stretch of time. James Reimer’s come in, and his numbers are exceptional,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “(Their) power play is starting to put some pucks in the net which takes some pressure off their five-on-five offensive game. In terms of effort and style of play, I think they’ve been pretty consistent all year.”
Maurice added that over the last seven games, he’s seen the Jets get back to where they want to be in defensive stats, including the top ten in shots from scoring areas.
“While our departure from a solid defensive game didn’t come from cheating, it came from us trying to push an offensive game, that I’m not saying we’re not built to play, but we’re not there yet,” said Maurice. “(It’s) just a refocusing on what it means to play a good game for the Winnipeg Jets. Systems haven’t changed. There isn’t anything but a focus on where you’re supposed to be, and how angry you’re supposed to be when you’re there in that spot.”
Overall, the Winnipeg Jets are 5-4-2 against the Eastern Conference so far this season. But the Jets know that record will be put to the test against a Leafs team that has won four of their five games against the Central Division, their only loss coming against the Jets.
Both Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers say they expect a “tight game” tonight, something that Maurice says the Jets are learning how to be confident in.
“When you’ve got a group of guys that aren’t expecting to score 30 that year, they’re going to bang it out and bang it in, at 1-1 in the third period you’re a comfortable team. I think we came out of our comfort level with that,” said Maurice, talking about a stretch in a road heavy November. “We wanted more. We should score more. We should be doing more. It wasn’t cheating. It wasn’t guys being lazy. We would press two and three, heavy pinches when there wasn’t quite a pinch there. We lost our patience in the game.”
That patience has returned, and Myers points to the 3-1 win over Minnesota last Friday as evidence. The Jets allowed only 15 shots against, allowing Connor Hellebuyck to pick up his first NHL win between the pipes.
“Looking back at Minnesota for sure was one of our best games,” said Myers. “We bring that intensity, we’ll give ourselves a chance every night.”
Speaking of Hellebuyck, the 22-year-old netminder is projected to get his second NHL start tonight. He’ll go up against Garret Sparks who is also coming off his first NHL start and win, a 3-0 shutout over Edmonton. Add it all up, and there’s a combined two games of NHL experience between Sparks and Hellebuyck.
“He’s played a game in the NHL. He deserved that game,” said Maurice of Hellebuyck’s start against Minnesota. “That’s a huge game for us. We’re not feeling very good about ourselves. We’re going into Minnesota, they’re the team we’re chasing, (and) we had a really difficult night in Minnesota the prior time we had played them.
“Other than the fact I liked the way he played, I liked the way he controlled rebounds… For all these young goaltenders that come in, when you pass the first test, you get the opportunity to get the second test.”
Trouba has played with both goaltenders during his international career. He saw a lot of Hellebuyck through the USA’s program, specifically the 2014 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Minsk, Belarus.
“He’s been good for a while,” said Trouba. “He’s got a short memory, which I think you kind of have to have in a goalie, any hockey player kind of has to have that. He can reset, and stay focused. I think that’s one of his strengths.”
Go back a year, and Trouba wore the red, white, and blue with Sparks at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. Though Sparks didn’t play any games, Trouba said Sparks didn’t let that bother him.
“He was just a really good teammate. He was in a tough spot in that tournament in the position he was in,” said Trouba. “I just thought he was a really good teammate in how he carried himself. He stayed a part of the group, which is something that really speaks about a guy.”
Puck drop tonight at MTS Centre is 6:30 pm CT.
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com