TORONTO — Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice and his team were tired and a little ornery.
Playing away from home for the 17th time in their last 22 outings — and wrapping up a five-game road trip that included a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators some 24 hours earlier — the Jets needed something to get them going Thursday.
An early deficit, two penalties that left their bench seething and a gutsy kill on the ensuing 5-on-3 power play did the trick.
Nikolaj Ehlers scored twice, including one to spark a three-goal barrage in the first period, and Connor Hellebuyck made 31 saves as Winnipeg defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2.
“You’re a little fatigued coming into the game, you’re a little edgy,” said Maurice, whose team picked up its league-leading 16th road victory. “But you need almost a starter, a catalyst to bring it out.
“And I think the calls, the great kill, that was the catalyst to get us angry.”
Kyle Connor added two goals — one into an empty net — to go along with an assist, while Mark Scheifele scored and set up two others for Winnipeg (27-14-3). Neal Pionk chipped in with two assists as the Jets moved within three points of the Leafs for top spot in the North Division.
“The way our (penalty kill) went out there … that fires a team up,” Ehlers said after reaching the 20-goal mark for a fifth straight season. “It creates a lot of momentum.”
John Tavares, with a goal and an assist, and Alex Galchenyuk replied for Toronto (28-12-4). Jack Campbell, who started the schedule with an NHL record 11 straight wins prior to Monday’s 4-2 loss in Montreal to the Canadiens, allowed those three goals on six shots in the first before getting pulled in favour of David Rittich.
Acquired on Sunday from the Calgary Flames and an overtime loser in his debut Tuesday against his former team, Rittich finished with 16 saves.
Toronto’s power play, which ranked No. 1 for a chunk of the season, dropped to a head-scratching 1 for 43 since March 9.
“We had some looks and some opportunities,” said Tavares, who has 10 points in his last seven games. “We’ve got to find a way to capitalize.
“We’re not on the right side of the special teams battle.”
The Jets and Leafs meet again next Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in Winnipeg to wrap up the season series, with Toronto still leading 4-3-0, although two of the Jets’ losses came after regulation.
“We just want to focus on playing our game,” Scheifele said of catching the Leafs for first. “It’s just about doing what we can.”
Toronto was minus Auston Matthews — the NHL leader in goals with 32 in 40 games — because of injury and William Nylander (COVID-19 protocol), while Jets captain Blake Wheeler (concussion) missed a fifth consecutive game.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said Matthews, who briefly stepped on the ice for Thursday’s morning skate, is day-to-day and not expected to be out long-term. When asked if the injury was the same wrist issue that caused him to miss three games earlier this season, Keefe answered: “It’s similar, but not the same.”
With Matthews sidelined, Tavares skated between Galchenyuk and Mitch Marner on Toronto’s first line.
That unit clicked 3:41 into the first when Galchenyuk beat Hellebuyck upstairs for his third goal of the season and second with the Leafs on a sequence that needed another look to make sure the puck entered Winnipeg’s net.
Toronto’s power play then got that two-man advantage for 71 seconds, but was unable to break through.
And it was all Jets from there the rest of the period.
The visitors connected nine seconds into their first power play when Ehlers scored his 19th on a shot through Campbell at 10:45 to make it 1-1 before Connor took a nice feed from Scheifele and buried his 20th off the rush just 27 seconds later.
Winnipeg kept coming and went up by two at 13:54 — its third goal in 3:09 — when both Toronto defencemen pinched, allowing Scheifele to race in alone on Campbell to score his 17th and end the goaltender’s night.
“We just lost structure to their best players — a 2-on-1 and a breakaway to their best people,” Keefe said. “Those are freebies that they didn’t give us that ultimately is the difference.”
“Giving up three in the first, it’s unacceptable,” Campbell added. “I put the team and David in a really tough spot.”
Keefe didn’t like a couple of the goals against, but indicated the hook was also made to shake up his group.
“We don’t take care of him there,” said the coach. “He’s taken care of us a lot this season, so just felt it was best to give him the rest of the night off.
“He’s been outstanding for us all season long. He didn’t deserve that in the first period.”
The Leafs, who came in having dropped two straight, including Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime setback against Calgary after going 9-0-1 over their previous 10 contests, weren’t much better to start the middle period, but found life when Tavares scored his 14th at 6:47.
Toronto got a man advantage to begin the third when Pierre-Luc Dubois was whistled for an illegal check to the head, but couldn’t capitalize.
Ehlers then stole the puck from Marner and poked it past Rittich to score his 20th at 5:34 on an ugly exchange from a Leafs perspective.
“Put (Rittich) in a bad spot,” Marner said. “S–t happens. We’ve just got to move on.”
Toronto got its fourth power play shortly thereafter, but was again unable to muster much to fall to 1 for 43 before Connor scored his team-leading 21st into an empty net with 36.1 seconds left to seal it.
“We grinded,” Scheifele said. “We didn’t like our whole game, but we definitely answered the call when we needed to.
“That’s a big win.”
Notes: Scheifele and Ehlers extended their respective point streaks to six games. … Toronto rookie Nick Robertson picked up an assist for his first regular-season NHL point. … Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen (lower-body injury) was on the ice before Thursday’s morning skate. The Dane last played March 19.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press