WINNIPEG – Road play has helped fuel the Toronto Maple Leafs' resurgence this season, while the Winnipeg Jets' special-teams play has tormented coach Claude Noel.
But success has left the Maple Leafs stranded on the side of the road lately. The Jets, meanwhile, have retooled what had been the National Hockey League's worst penalty kill and even produced a rare power-play tally Tuesday in delivering a 5-2 thumping to the Leafs at MTS Centre.
Winnipeg (13-11-2) received two goals from Blake Wheeler to go with single tallies from Nik Antropov, Kyle Wellwood and Evander Kane in hitting the five-goal mark for the second time this season. Antropov also chipped in two assists, while Dustin Byfuglien had a three-assist evening. Ondrej Pavelec made his 12th start in the club's past 13 games and stopped 24 Toronto shots.
The ninth-place Jets' win sets up a meeting Thursday at MTS Centre with the eighth-place New York Rangers.
"I thought that was probably one of our better, if not our best, home games this season," Noel said. "I thought we had a lot of good games from a lot of players."
Phil Kessel countered twice for the Leafs (15-11-1) in front of goaltender James Reimer, who made 24 saves before Kane's third-period goal ended his evening. Ben Scrivens finished in relief with five saves.
Toronto's 7-2-0 start on the road marked the club's best effort to begin a season since 1940-41, but the Maple Leafs have struggled on the road since rattling off a three-game road winning streak early in February. Toronto owns only two wins in its past six road games and has allowed four or more goals in each of their past four outings.
"The 'try' is there," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said, "but the 'smart-and-intelligent try' right now [is not] there."
The loss also spawned the first questions about whether the Leafs may be on the same path that derailed them last season when a loss in Winnipeg sent Toronto on a tailspin in which it lost nine of its next 10 games. The skid dropped the Maple Leafs out of contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which led to coach Ron Wilson's firing, but Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf shrugged aside any potential parallels with this season's club.
"It's a completely different group," Phaneuf said, "and a completely different situation. We feel that last year is last year. We've said that many times now. Right now we've got to stop it. We've got to player better."
But Phaneuf did not side-step any questions about the Leafs' performance Tuesday.
"We just didn't play well enough," Phaneuf said. "Bottom line. We're not happy about it, and we definitely have to be a lot better. We're well aware in this room that we did not play well."
For the Jets, it was their much-maligned special teams set up their fifth win in 11 home dates. The Jets used a first-period goal that interrupted a 1-for-36 slump on the power play to establish an early lead. Then in the second period after regaining a one-goal lead, the Jets burned off a Toronto 5-on-3 power play that lasted 1:55 and continued to revive their penalty kill.
"I think the [moment] that really turned the game around was the 5-on-3 kill," Noel said.
The Jets' performance followed a day that featured a lineup controversy when Noel made center Alexander Burmistrov a healthy scratch. Noel did so after benching the 21-year-old for most of the final two periods of a shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils that ended a four-game road trip Sunday. Noel has repeatedly stressed a desire to see his club take a more disciplined approach to its play, and they responded against Toronto.
"I think that our players made a decision that we needed to take a step forward," Noel continued, "and I really thought that they played very well. It was a game where I thought that everybody was determined to do the right thing. I thought that it was a selfless game by our players, and I thought that they really played with one objective -- to play the right way and to play to win the game, regardless of the score, and I thought it was evident."
Winnipeg's power play has generated considerable angst inside the dressing room and around the city. Thanks to the 1-for-36 slump, the Jets had not tallied on the man-advantage since Feb. 5 against the Florida Panthers. Antropov's goal came against a Toronto penalty kill that began the evening having 47 of its past 51 opposing man-advantages and pulled the Maple Leafs to seventh overall in the League.
Byfuglien unleashed a long, rising shot from inside the blue line that Antropov redirected past Reimer 44 seconds into Mark Fraser's interference minor.
Kessel responded 38 seconds into the second period after pouncing on Byfuglien's turnover. Kessel sped down the left boards on the off-wing and let go a broken-stick bouncing shot that slipped under Pavelec's left pad. Kessel's goal, his eighth, came in the same building in which he scored his first goal of the season Feb. 7, a game-winning goal spawned the first of Winnipeg's four straight home defeats.
But the Jets retook the lead 25 seconds later when Wheeler snapped a long rebound from the left dot that connected for his ninth goal. The Jets then killed off Toronto's two-man advantage, Winnipeg's 24th and 25th consecutive kills since the allowing three power-play goals to the Philadelphia Flyers in a home loss Feb. 12.
"You've got to score on a 5-on-3," Carlyle said.
Winnipeg's kill rate over the past 10 games has nudged the Jets out of the League's last-place spot after their early-season struggles temporarily had pushed them below a 60-percent kill rate.
"It was a big point in the game when we had a big penalty kill," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "We had a lot of great efforts from our goaltender and the [penalty-killers] on the ice to get that job done, so that was a huge part of the game."
Byfuglien and Antropov combined to set up a 3-1 Winnipeg lead before Kane and Wheeler tore open the game midway through the third period. Kane's breakaway goal chased Reimer, whom Carlyle did not fault.
"I can't really talk about the team," Reimer said. "All I can talk about is my performance. Four goals isn't good enough."