Maybe Justin Bieber should send more love letters to his favourite NHL team.
Twenty-four hours after the Canadian singer’s latest single, Hold On (Maple Leafs Love Letter) dropped, the Toronto Maple Leafs took down the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in overtime on Thursday to snap a season-high three-game losing streak.
The victory ensured that the Leafs reached the halfway point of their season with a six-point lead over the second-placed Jets atop the NHL’s North Division. Conversely, the Jets saw their recent hot streak come to an end, with just their third loss in their past 10 games.
One year minus a day since the NHL shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league has mostly played out in front of empty arenas since. Winnipeg Jets forward Nicolaj Ehlers said before the game that he missed the crowd’s response to the ebb and flow of the action.
“Even the booing,” Ehlers said.
Fortunately or otherwise for the Dane, there were no fans in attendance at Scotiabank Arena to witness his three-point outing. However, that also meant that the Leafs faithful were also denied witnessing a thrilling comeback victory for Toronto, who won for the first time this season when trailing after two periods.
As ever, it was left to Auston Matthews to put in the star turn, with the Leafs centre backhanding his league-leading 21st goal of the year 59 seconds into the three-on-three extra period, converting a pass from Morgan Rielly for the win.
It was Matthews’s NHL-best seventh game-winning goal of the season, coming in just his fifth game back following a wrist injury.
“Elite talent,” was how head coach Sheldon Keefe described Matthews afterwards. “He’s a star, that’s what they do. The condition of his hand and stuff aside, he was quite tired there too. To have the energy to get up the ice and put himself in that spot … that’s big-time stuff.”
The overtime winner ruined something of a virtuoso performance from Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, who stopped 34 of the 38 shots directed at him, including a hat trick of breakaways.
“Me, personally, I thought I stole a lot of goals tonight,” he said after the game, the ninth game in his last 10 that he has conceded at least three goals.
“These are two really good teams. You can feel it. You can feel the energy. You can see it in everyone’s eyes.”
The two teams square off once again Saturday in Toronto for their fourth of 10 scheduled meetings this season.
In a league as competitive as the NHL, in which one-goal wins are doled out on a nightly basis, the Leafs improved to 8-2-2 in such games, coming just two days after a 4-3 home loss to the Jets on Tuesday.
Thursday’s game began much the same way Tuesday’s one had played out, with the home team carrying the play and the opposition netminder frustrating it at every opportunity.
Hellebuyck made 30 saves over the final 40 minutes on Tuesday, and another 10 in the first 20 minutes on Thursday, six of were necessary to prevent gilt-edged opportunities from the slot. William Nylander was denied less than two minutes into the game on a breakaway, while Mitch Marner was stymied with less than a minute to go.
Having absorbed pressure for much of the period, going without a shot for almost 8 1/2 minutes, the Jets struck with under four minutes to go. Pressure from Kyle Connor forced Travis Dermott to cough the puck up at centre ice, allowing Pierre-Luc Dubois to seize upon, gaining the offensive zone before dishing to Ehlers, who roofed it over Frederik Andersen’s glove hand for his 12th of the year.
Marner wasted little time answering back in the middle stanza. With Matthews occupying the front of the net at the 3:14 mark of the period, the Leafs winger seized on a rebound following a TJ Brodie shot from the blueline to backhand the puck into the unguarded cage. It was the 11th goal and team-leading 36th point of the season for Marner, ending a five-game goalless drought, while Matthews and Brodie picked up the assists.
Ehlers restored the Jets’ advantage at the 10:50 mark of the period, one-timing a saucer pass from Connor past Andersen, before relinquishing centre stage to Hellebuyck once again. The franchise’s career wins leader then stopped Hyman and Engvall on breakaways, among a flurry of superlative chances that fell the way of the Leafs.
But with the Leafs’ 31st shot of the game, it was Nylander’s turn to solve Hellebuyck once again. With Toronto bearing down on the Winnipeg goal, captain John Tavares split the defencemen before sliding a cross-crease pass beyond the range of the Jets goaltender, and with his fifth shot of the game, the Swede buried a one-timer for his 11th goal of the season to knot the score at 2-2.
Just over six minutes later and Hellebuyck was beaten again, with Ilya Mikheyev banging home a pass in front from Alex Kerfoot.
The Jets weren’t to be denied at least a point though. With their goaltender pulled for the extra attacker, Ehlers put the puck on the net and Paul Stastny deflected it past Andersen to take the game to overtime.