Coming off a dominant win over the Calgary Flames, the Winnipeg Jets returned to Bell MTS Place and welcomed in the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs for a brief two-game series. With first place in the division up for grabs, back-to-back wins for the Jets would leapfrog them over the Leafs for first place in the division, a title well within reach for a Winnipeg team coming off a successful Western Canada road trip.
However, the homestand got off to a disappointing start as the Jets fell short in both games against the Leafs, subsequently falling four points back of the division lead. Marred by some questionable defensive play and haunted by some timely saves from Jack Campbell, the Jets’ high octane offense was contained, something we haven’t seen a whole lot of this season.
Instead of taking advantage, the Jets slipped in the standings, making their quest for first in the North Division that much harder as the season rolls on. To break down the subpar series a little further, here are three things that stood out to me as the Leafs depart Manitoba with four points.
Campbell Exacts Revenge, Outduels Hellebuyck
Just a short while ago (March 9-13, to be exact), the Jets made a trip to Toronto for a crucial three-game series. The story of those games? Goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck was outstanding, turning aside countless grade-A scoring chances and allowing the Jets to steal two out of those three contests. On the flip side, Frederik Andersen struggled, and drew a fair amount of criticism from Leafs Nation.
Flash forward to March 31, and Hellebuyck is staring down a different opponent at the other end of the ice. This time, it’s Jack Campbell who’s making the start and this time, Hellebuyck found himself being outplayed.
In game one, Campbell was terrific, turning aside a flurry of high danger scoring chances. While the Leafs did a respectable job keeping the Jets’ offense on the perimeter and limiting the amount of sustained pressure in their own end, Campbell had to be sharp, turning aside a couple of chances off the stick of Andrew Copp and robbing Kyle Connor repeatedly on the power play.
In game two, it was more of the same, as Campbell one-upped his own performance from two nights prior. Despite a noticeable pushback from the home side, Campbell answered the bell once more, staying technically sound during point-blank chances and going a perfect 3-for-3 in the shootout.
Don’t get me wrong, Hellebuyck didn’t play poorly by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, many would argue he kept the Jets in both games at times. However, the main difference here is that Campbell was never left out to dry. Toronto’s offense did a significantly better job capitalizing on defensive lapses, and when it comes to any goaltending duel, a few mistakes are often all it takes to throw away a game.
Jets Defensive Awareness Comes Back to Haunt Them
Speaking of those defensive lapses, Toronto scored four total goals in regulation across the two games, three of which can be attributed to some defensive mistake. And no, I’m not discussing this from a hindsight perspective, I’m talking about this from an in-game perspective, one where a clear lapse in defensive awareness led directly to a goal against. Let’s break this down further.
Starting off with the icebreaker on Wednesday night, this might’ve been the most obvious one. Pierre-Luc Dubois had control of the puck two feet away from his own blueline and not only turned it over, but also rocked Derek Forbort after missing Zach Hyman with a heavy hit. To make matters worse, Blake Wheeler (whose defensive abilities have been questioned by many this season), was caught in between Hyman and Auston Matthews, who eventually buried the loose puck. Not a great start.
The second marker was similar, but not as obvious. Following a turnover by Mark Scheifele, the Leafs’ top unit worked their magic, moving the puck around the offensive zone with effortless precision. After Mitch Marner found some open space in the slot, Logan Stanley slid (or dove, depends on how you look at it) aggressively, creating a three-on-one in tight, with Hyman being the eventual beneficiary. A tough look for the young defenseman.
The third goal was the result of a bad bounce and unfortunate positioning. Josh Morrissey attempted to keep the puck in the offensive zone on the power play, however, he ended up kicking it back to Ilya Mikheyev who sprung Alex Kerfoot on a shorthanded breakaway. Andrew Copp, the designated high forward, was trapped under both Leaf forwards, providing no puck support on the backcheck. An unfortunate, yet avoidable mistake.
Ultimately, defensive mistakes aren’t as obvious unless they end up costing a team. For the Jets, the unfortunate reality of their two-game series was that their mistakes came back to haunt them. There were plenty of defensive lapses made by both teams throughout the series (including ones where both Campbell and Hellebuyck were forced to bail out their respective teams), however, the Leafs managed to take advantage of their opportunities, a clear difference-maker at the end of the day.
Dubois-Wheeler-Stastny Struggle Against Toronto
When Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler, and Paul Stastny were assembled on a line together, I was excited. The trio complement each other perfectly, and, after dominating Calgary, I was confident the Jets had found an exciting combination. However, at the end of my article outlining how Dubois could benefit from Wheeler being on his line, I emphasized that the real test would come against a team like the Leafs, and what better timing with Toronto making the trip west a couple of days later.
To put it bluntly, the test did not go well, as the newly assembled line struggled mightily against the Leafs offense.
For Wheeler, the first tilt against Toronto ended prematurely for him, as he departed with an undisclosed injury following the conclusion of the first period. Making a triumphant return for game two, he made little to no impact on the game itself, carrying a minus-2 rating throughout the series and struggling to find his footing offensively.
For Stastny, it was more of the same. Little to no offence generation and with Wheeler’s absence in game one, the Jets top power-play unit lacked its traditional setup and Stastny seemed to be thrown into an unfamiliar role. Furthermore, both Stastny and Wheeler were considered to be difference-makers ahead of the series against the Leafs, yet the pair looked entirely different from the players that we saw command the ice back in Toronto.
Perhaps the most surprising struggle came courtesy of Dubois, who was acquired primarily as a cornerstone down the middle for the Jets. Particularly against another centre-heavy team in the Leafs, Dubois, alongside Mark Scheifele, were seen as some of the only players that could go toe-to-toe with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. And in a big test against one of the best teams in the league, Dubois missed the mark at both ends of the ice.
On top of his defensive struggles, Dubois didn’t use his size to his advantage, losing the puck on numerous occasions and oftentimes looking for a quick way up the ice rather than the more reliable route. Finding the back of the net just 3 times in his last 19 contests, Dubois has struggled as of late, placing more responsibility on players like Scheifele and Adam Lowry to drive the Jets offense.
Yes, perhaps the matchup did not favour Dubois in any regard and yes, he might’ve looked considerably worse compared to someone like Auston Matthews, but the fact of the matter is the Jets need more from Dubois if they want to compete with the top teams in the North Division.
Jets Need to Regroup Ahead of Another Road Trip
The Jets’ schedule was also affected by the Vancouver Canucks COVID-19 outbreak, as the Canucks were slated to make the trip to Winnipeg and square off on Sunday. With that game being postponed, the Jets get the pesky Ottawa Senators on Monday in what would’ve been the second half of a back-to-back.
That’s a bigger game than a lot of people realize, because the Jets will need as much momentum as they can get before they head out on the road again starting on Thursday, with a pair of games in both Montreal and Ottawa before heading to Toronto for a rematch. Looking ahead, the Jets schedule is not an easy one, and the group will certainly be battle-tested when they depart the comforts of home. However, should the Jets clean up defensively and reignite their offense, they’ll be back within striking distance of the division lead in no time. It’s possible that their latest blip against Toronto is, after all, just a one-off.
What did you think of the Jets effort against Toronto? How has the Dubois trade worked out in your eyes? Let me know in the comments.