The Winnipeg Jets host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday and as much as everyone outside the local market may underestimate and disregard the Jets resurgence, a win won’t be a surprise to those following them. There are three areas that the team currently hold a distinct advantage over the Maple Leafs, which should lead to victory.
The Jets Have Better Defense
The Jets’ defensive woes have been easy fodder for the media over the past two seasons, and for good reason. It’s becoming apparent the problem wasn’t the system or the roster. Rick Bowness has his defensive corp playing more responsible in their own zone, giving up fewer high-danger scoring chances while being more engaged on offense.
Neal Pionk, who scored three times in the Jets’ last two games, including the overtime winner in Colorado, leads a blue line that is transitioning to being more aggressive contributors on offense. Pionk leads the team in scoring with four points and is applying the message Bowness has been preaching.
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One of the Maple Leafs’ leading scorers is also a defenseman. Morgan Reilly has five points in five games and is on the first power-play unit. However, the Leafs’ depth on the blue line in trouble. They are without veteran Jake Muzzin who is out with a concussion, leaving an already depleted group without its defensive stalwart.
“The uncertain nature of Muzzin’s injury, and return, means the Leafs have to at least start contemplating whether they need to add another defenceman at some point. And not a Danny DeKeyser-level depth defender but someone more substantial who can play in their top four. Anytime it’s suggested that Mitch Marner be moved to the blue line you know there’s issues on defense.”– Jonas Seigal (from ‘What Jake Muzzin’s ominous injury might mean for Maple Leafs’ defence,’ The Athetic, 20/10/2022)
The Maple Leafs have a defensive unit currently lacking depth, which could be beneficial to the Jets.
The Maple Leafs are Fragile
Maple Leafs’ coach Sheldon Keefe publicly called out his team for their poor play after an embarrassing loss to the Arizona Coyotes. However, he then retracted his statement and publicly apologized. It begs the question, who is in charge in Toronto?
“That should’ve changed the narrative to a tough coach puts players on notice. Instead, two days after the comments, Keefe publicly stated that he was wrong. Never has it been more obvious who is running the team and just how fragile the core is on this underperforming squad.”– Kevin Armstrong, The Hockey Writers, 20/10/2022
The Jets on the other hand are a happy bunch. It’s been well publicized that the players are very content with their new coach and his fresh and positive approach to the game. He has instilled new energy and excitement on the team, and the transformation of the team is becoming more apparent each night out.
The Jets have the upper hand here, they are coming off a road win against the defending Stanley Cup Champions and are feeling good about they way they’ve been playing through a difficult schedule. It isn’t news that a happy team plays better than a disgruntled unit.
The Hellebuyck Factor
It’s no secret Connor Hellebuyck is one of the best goalies on the planet. The Jets’ netminder is back on form and playing like the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate fans have come to expect. He currently has a .922 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.66 goals-against average (GAA). In the Jets’ season opener, he stopped 40 of 41 shots against the New York Rangers who were playing their third game of the season. After scoring three and seven in wins against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild, respectively, they only managed one against Hellebuyck who was the game’s first star.
The Leafs’ depth chart in goal is already on high alert with the injury to Matt Murray, meaning they are relying on Ilya Samsonov to man the pipes. He’s had a good start to the season with a 1.96 GAA and a .927 SV%, but the difference is he has won games against the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators — not exactly the same calibre of opponent to what Hellebuyck has faced.
#NHLJets alternate captain Adam Lowry, asked by a Toronto reporter what makes Jets-Leafs games so spicy.— Mike McIntyre (@mikemcintyrewpg) October 22, 2022
“You guys,” Lowry says with a laugh. #wfp
The conditions are right for a Jets victory. On one hand, you have a team that is excited to be experimenting with a new style of play. The Jets are 2-2 this season against some of the best teams in the NHL. They have yet to play anyone with a losing record. Meanwhile, the Leafs have lost games to the Montreal Canadiens and the Coyotes, two of the worst teams in the league. They are a team off to a slow start and there seems to be discontent in the dressing room.