WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets were due for an offensive explosion.
Combine that with one of their tightest defensive performances of the season – rivalling last Friday’s win over the Minnesota Wild – and you get this.
In a game featuring two rookie goaltenders, Connor Hellebuyck outduelled his American counterpart, Garret Sparks, improving to 2-0 in his NHL career with 32 saves in a 6-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The line Mark Scheifele, Mathieu Perreault and Drew Stafford led the way offensively for the Jets, combining for seven points.
Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little (his team-leading 10th) and Anthony Peluso (his first in 49 games) also scored in the win.
“Not far off our game in Minny,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said of Wednesday’s workmanship. “It just makes that sales job that much easier, that we need to play that game to be a solid defensive team.”
Michael Grabner struck early for the Leafs, opening the scoring with his first of the season shortly after the anthem, but that was all the offence the Leafs had in them. Creating an odd-man situation down low, Daniel Winnik delivered a pass across the blue paint, giving the winger a tap in.
“I think it shows that if you play good defence and you stick to the system for a full 60 minutes, you’re going to get rewarded. That’s what happened tonight,” Scheifele, who recorded his 100th career point with his goal in the third period, said post-game. “We stuck to the system and we didn’t stray from it at all. When they tried to open the game up a little bit, we stayed strong and popped a few in.”
Stafford levelled the score with a beautiful goal at 8:24, skilfully finishing what eventually became a short breakaway. Leading the attack on his backhand, Scheifele shovelled a pass 35 feet across the box. With speed in the slot, Stafford did the rest, hoisting it high over Sparks for the equalizer.
“Good things happen when you go to the net,” Stafford said. “They know where I’m going. It was a great play starting with Matty in the middle. Scheifs stuck with it and made a great pass to me and I had enough speed to go to the backhand.”
After playing 11 of their last 15 games on the road coming in – a stretch that included a tough, six-game losing streak – the Jets are now 4-3 in their seven contests.
“You have to make that choice to bring your best every night. You can’t have any passengers,” Stafford said. “We’ve got to manage the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of this league. There are no easy games out there and no one’s going to hand it to us.”
A power-play goal with 2:28 left gave the Jets their first lead. After Nikolaj Ehlers hit the crossbar on the opposite side, Stafford jumped on a loose puck, quickly corralling it before firing a shot off a sprawling defender and into the open side.
Stafford has now tallied three two-goal games this season.
Shawn Matthias had a chance for the tie late in the opening 20, but he mishandled the puck on a shorthanded breakaway.
Shots on goal favoured the Jets 11-9 after one period of play, leading into a scoreless middle frame.
Two quick goals from the Jets put them ahead 4-1, and it remained that way even after the visitors found the back of the net. An apparent goal by Nick Spaling was overturned via challenge – a lengthy review, initiated by the head coach, showing Hellebuyck was interfered with.
“I felt a lot going on,” the 22-year-old said. “I felt like I was shoved and when I watched the replay I saw the stick in my arm. Originally I thought it was my own teammate’s stick, but after seeing the video, I thought there was a good chance it could get called back.”
Scheifele’s marker at 1:25 (a choppy backhand in tight) and Ladd’s at 2:43 (a wicked snipe off the far post) put the Jets in the driver’s seat.
Little potted one on the power play at 10:53 before Peluso rounded out the scoring late, toe dragging in tight before sliding it five-hole on Sparks.
Hellebuyck did the rest to preserve the five-goal margin – the Jets’ biggest of the season.
“They had some looks from the slot toward the end of the second and then again early in the third, but the goaltender squared up on all of those,” Maurice said. “We had a fair amount of offence in the second period that didn’t go for us, and I think it did in the third.
“We scored some goals and then it got away from (the Leafs) a little bit.”
The Jets are back in action on Saturday afternoon against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com