Blake Wheeler celebrated his 1,000th NHL game with a pair of assists in a scrappy 6-3 victory for the Winnipeg Jets over the Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday, but he still wasn’t able to score his first goal of the season.
The Jets captain, who was feted with a pre-game video montage commemorating his career – which started with the Boston Bruins in 2008 – had two shots on goal, including one on a breakaway, but he wasn’t able to beat Joseph Woll. The rookie netminder stopped 35 shots.
“There’s a lot of buildup, a lot of anticipation,” said Wheeler, who has 12 assists this season. “You want to absorb it and enjoy it and soak in every moment, but at the same time it’s nice to move on. It’s weird being front and centre when you play a team sport.”
Connor Hellebuyck stopped 32 shots in the Jets net for his ninth victory of the season. The Jets improved to 12-8-4 while the Leafs fell to 17-7-2.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Andrew Copp, Evgeny Svechnikov, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele scored for Winnipeg.
Michael Bunting, Auston Matthews and Ondrej Kase replied for Toronto.
The Jets, who have won three of their last four games to vault into second place in the Central Division, scored four goals in less than nine minutes in the second period to take a 5-1 lead before the Leafs replied with two. Scheifele salted the game away in the third period.
The Jets’ offensive display would have made Dale Hawerchuk and the rest of the 1980s Jets proud.
There were also enough penalties and punches thrown between the two sides to evoke memories of the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s.
“Today was just a good hockey game, right?” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “It had a little bit of everything in it. There was some energy and emotion, as there should be. Toronto for sure would be a rivalry as we played them 10 times last year. This game had some leftover from games past. It got a little heated out there, but that’s good.”
Toronto, which was playing its second road game in as many nights – they lost to the Minnesota Wild 4-3 in a shootout 24 hours earlier – paid the price for giving up too many two-on-ones and three-on-twos.
“We didn’t give (Woll) any help,” said Matthews, the Leafs sniper who extended his goal-scoring streak to six games. “That’s on us, we didn’t help him out one bit. He still made some pretty amazing saves. The way we just let them fly through and have all these odd-man chances, that’s not the way you want to play.”
There was a steady march of players to the penalty box in this battle between these former Canadian Division rivals but one unpenalized play stood out to Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin was carried off the ice after an apparent knee-on-knee hit from Jets defenceman Neal Pionk in the third period.
Keefe thought the hit deserved a five-minute major.
“The guy gets carried off. I didn’t get much from the officials as to how they saw it. Obviously, they didn’t see it. If they did see it, they probably would have called it differently,” he said.
Keefe said the non-stop chirping between the benches wasn’t out of the ordinary for a high-intensity game like this.
“The Jets weren’t happy and I wasn’t happy. That’s the way it goes. When there’s stuff going on and it’s not being called, emotions get really high,” he said.
Matthews agreed with his coach.
“There was a bit of a snowball effect. Things just kind of spiralled out of control, it wasn’t really hockey in the third period. It was just a bit of a gong show,” he said.
The emotions weren’t just on the ice. There were countless Leafs fans in the building Sunday night and their “Go Leafs Go” chants drowned out the locals on more than one occasion.
Toronto played their second game without sniper Mitch Marner, who collided with teammate Jake Muzzin at practice on Friday.
Wheeler helped get the Jets on the board first with a nifty pass on the power play to Dubois, who was all alone in front of the net at 4:05 for his 12th goal of the season.
Pierre Engvall found Bunting in the Jets’ slot and his wrist shot bulged the twine behind Hellebuyck at 16:08.
Pionk hit Copp with a stretch pass and he beat Woll on a partial breakaway 1:51 into the second.
The Jets doubled their lead to 3-1 a few shifts later as Dominic Toninato found Svechnikov on a two-on-one.
The Jets went back to the power play a few minutes later. Connor put the Jets ahead 4-1 when his shot from the right faceoff dot beat Woll at 7:38 for his 15th.
Ehlers converted Copp’s pass for his ninth of the season to give the Jets a 5-1 lead at 10:45. It was Winnipeg’s fourth goal in less than nine minutes.
Matthews’ wrist shot from the top of the circle beat Hellebuyck just underneath the crossbar to make it 5-2 at 14:20.
Kase went down the right side and squeezed a shot between Hellebuyck and his left post at 15:46 for his sixth of the season.