Winnipeg Jets' coach Claude Noel likes to talk a lot about building his team's "identity" and "character" by winning on the road.
"To me the true test of our team and our character or anybody's team, is how you play on the road. That's where you are challenged," Noel said before Thursday's game between the Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs. "Anybody can play at home."
By that measure the Jets failed miserably Thursday losing 4-0 to the Leafs and rarely looking like much of a threat. It was the team's second straight road loss this week and it dropped the Jets' overall record to 19-16-5. More troubling for Winnipeg, the team is now 5-10-4 on the road, with many road games coming up this month.
"It seems like we are not willing to play the type of game on the road that is necessary for us to win or give ourselves a chance," goaltender Chris Mason said after the game. "We're not even close. In my opinion we're making it too easy for the other team."
The Leafs by contrast picked up their second straight win and vaulted ahead of Winnipeg and into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. The win also marked the first shut out of the season for Jonas Gustavsson, who stopped 24 shots and seems to have earned the starting goaltender job in Toronto, ahead of James Reimer.
"Well ... it's always a good time when you do something right, isn't it?" Gustavsson said afterward. While he was rarely tested seriously during the game, Gustavsson got lucky a couple of times. Winnipeg forward Alexander Burmistrov missed a wide open net while the Toronto goalie was sprawled on his backside and then the Jets failed to capitalize when Gustavsson briefly lost his glove. "We didn't know whether the referee was supposed to stop the play or what. So, it was all about just keep on going," Gustavsson said. "The most I could hope for was that they [the Jets]didn't see that I didn't have my glove. It was lucky for me that the play stayed in the middle, instead of having to go to the post."
Joffrey Lupul quipped that seeing Gustavsson play without a glove was like "shades of Johnny Bower out there. Those guys who played with no mask."
The Leafs were clearly the fresher, faster, more eager team from the start Thursday, having not played since Tuesday when they beat Tampa Bay 7-3 in Toronto. The Jets, on the other hand, appeared sluggish and drawn out, arriving from Montreal where they lost 7-3 to the Canadiens on Wednesday. More concerning for Winnipeg, the Jets landed in Toronto without winning the second game of a back-to-back this season.
The Leafs took control from the start, taking virtually all of the play to Winnipeg and turning the Jets in circles early on. Toronto scored barely five minutes into the game when Lupul dug the puck out from along the boards and fired a sharp pass to Phil Kessel, who deflected it by Winnipeg goalie Chris Mason. The goal was only Toronto's fourth shot on the Winnipeg net.
The Leafs got their second goal less than two minutes into the second period on a bizarre play that involved two delayed penalty calls against Winnipeg. The Leaf's pulled Gustavsson and Tim Connolly scored before even one penalty was served.
The Jets finally mounted a counterattack late in the second period, firing nearly a dozen shots at Gustavsson who almost seemed surprised by the sudden turn of play. But the Jets couldn't connect. Toronto coach Ron Wilson gave credit to his goaltender for holding off the charge. "When we were running around there a little bit the last four or five minutes of the second period he made some, just easy saves and froze the puck for us," Wilson said afterward.
That was the only serious challenge Gustavsson faced, save for a couple of close calls in the third period. Mason, by contrast, had to come up big several times, including on breakaways by Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. He ended up stopping 21 of 25 shots.
The Leafs scored early in the third as well, with Grabovski connecting on a hard wrist shot less than four minutes into the period. Clarke MacArthur added another goal on a power play a few minutes later.
Toronto got a scare late in the game when Dion Phaneuf took a puck in the side of the face. He lay on the ice for several minutes with blood trickling from his mouth, before making his way off the ice. "His mouth is pretty swollen, but, heck, right now he didn't lose any teeth," said Wilson. "We'll just have to wait and see what the x-rays show."
These teams will likely be chasing each other for the rest of the season. They came into the game with identical records of 19-15-5 for 43 points, putting both just outside a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They had also split their first two meetings, with Toronto winning the first 4-3 at home in a shootout in October and the Jets winning 3-2 last weekend in Winnipeg. They play once more in February.
For now, though, the Leafs and Jets appear to have opposite prospects. The Jets amassed nearly half of their points in December, when they had 12 games at home and went 10-3-1, for 21 points. But Winnipeg's long run of games at the friendly MTS Centre is over. The team has nine road games in January and just four at home.
"We've got to get back to work," Noel said after the game. "There's no easy way around these things. We hit a bump in the road. It's how you are going to respond to these things."
The Leafs on the other hand play nine games at home in January and three on the road. Toronto's next game is at home Saturday against Detroit