The Winnipeg Jets crept a little closer to Toronto in the NHL’s North Division with a 4-3 victory over the first-place Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The victory was the seventh in the last nine games for Winnipeg, which leapfrogged over Edmonton into the second slot in the division. The Jets trail Toronto by five points, but there are still eight games remaining between them during the regular season.
The defeat was the third straight for the Maple Leafs, and the first time they have lost three in a row this season. They are 18-7-2 overall. The teams meet again on Thursday and Saturday on Toronto’s home ice.
Mason Appleton netted the game-winner with 13:07 remaining in the third period when he shovelled a puck into a corner of the net as he slid across the front of the crease.
Auston Matthews, who has been hampered by an injury to his right wrist, scored his league-leading 19th and 20th goals for Toronto.
Frederik Andersen, who had never lost in regulation time in 12 starts against the Jets, was saddled with the defeat. He gave up a 2-1 lead and ended up stopping 19 of 23 shots. It was his second straight loss.
Toronto was coming off back-to-back losses in Vancouver to the Canucks. Winnipeg had last played on Saturday and lost embarrassingly in Montreal to the Canadiens, 7-1. The Jets are resilient, however, and have now gone 7-0-1 this season in games following a regulation loss. The Florida Panthers and the Jets are the only teams in the league yet to lose two games in a row in regulation time thus far.
“We are pretty level-headed, never too low and never too high,” Appleton said afterward. “In this league, you don’t want to lose two in a row. We flushed that game on Saturday night and got a big win here tonight.”
Connor Hellebuyck had 36 saves for the Jets. He was pulled after allowing four goals in 34 minutes on Saturday, and had allowed three or more goals in seven of the last eight games.
“I wanted to show I am better than that,” Hellebuyck, who won the Vezina Trophy last year as the league’s top goalie, said.
Although he allowed three goals, he made a flurry of critical saves in scrambles in front of the net late in the third period after Toronto had removed Andersen to add a sixth attacker.
“If your goaltender is that good, you always have a chance to win,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said.
Toronto went ahead 1-0 when Zach Hyman back-handed a puck past Hellebuyck on a rush to the net to put Toronto in front with 11:44 left in the first period. It was Hyman’s eighth goal of the season and fourth in the last six games. Winnipeg drew even when Andrew Copp deflected a one-timer by Neal Pionk past Andersen on a power play a little more than four minutes later.
The Leafs re-took the lead on a power play when Matthews tipped in a wrist shot by Morgan Rielly 2 minutes 16 seconds before the first intermission. The goal was the first in six games for Matthews and it was the 17th assist for the Rielly, who celebrated his 27th birthday on Tuesday.
Toronto entered the night as the best in the league in the power play, with 25 goals in 80 chances (converting 31.1 per cent of the time). The Maple Leafs improved on that percentage, which was what Paul Maurice, the Jets head coach, feared earlier in the day.
“You cannot be undisciplined and casually put this team on the power play,” Maurice said following the morning skate. “We need to stay out of the box. With enough frequency, they are going to score goals.”
Winnipeg knotted the score 2-2 with 7:15 left in the second on a long wrist shot by defenceman Josh Morrissey. It was his first goal of the season in his 25th game. Pionk recorded his second assist of the evening, and another was awarded to Mark Scheifele.
“I had had some good chances and made some good shots this season but none of them went in,” Morrissey said. He logged 29 minutes of ice time. “To finally score one is nice. It gave me a lift.”
Morrissey said the team didn’t panic after Saturday’s lopsided defeat. He said that Maurice came into the dressing room afterwards and told his players not to worry about it. In a season where they have been very good, it was an aberration.
“You lose like that and nobody likes the feeling,” Morrissey said. “You have to let it go. I don’t think anybody was even thinking about it coming into tonight.”
The Jets took their first lead late in the second period following a sloppy line change by Toronto. Kyle Connor tapped in a shot from in front of Andersen after a slick pass from Nikolaj Ehlers from behind the net. It was Connor’s team-leading 12th goal after scoring 31, 34 and 38 over the last three seasons.
Toronto was counting on a better effort after successive losses and nearly rallied to tie it with Andersen pulled for more than three minutes.
“Losing two games doesn’t sit well with us,” Maple Leafs defenceman Zach Bogosian said earlier in the day. “We did lose two in a row, but we have done a lot of really good things so far. We don’t want that to happen again, but in the same breath, we are doing really good.”
Matthews had 18 goals in 19 games until he injured his right hand as he slid into the boards during a Jan. 24 meeting against Calgary. Toronto is 10-2-1 when he scores a goal and he got two, but Toronto fell short. His second of the night came with Andersen pulled and made it 4-3 with 1:54 left.
The Jets held on to inch closer in the standings.
“You could tell guys were hungry tonight,” Hellebuyck said. “There is a lot of character in our dressing room.”