The upcoming Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday showdown in Toronto has been eagerly awaited by Jets fans for a while now. So the 7-1 blowout loss in Montreal this past weekend would understandably not be viewed as the most ideal way for second-ranked Winnipeg (15-8-1) to be going into battle versus the top team (18-6-2) in the NHL’s Scotia North Division.
But head coach Paul Maurice described his team’s Monday practice following a scheduled day off on Sunday as exactly what he would be looking for following a game where all 18 skaters wound up on the minus side of the ledger.
“I don’t know in 25 years that I’ve ever seen that — and two goalies played,” said the veteran bench boss. “So we have this whole thing nicely spread out across the board, and we’ve got something to prove that that wasn’t our game.
“We had a good, sharp practice here today — not casual by any means and certainly not arrogant by any means. I think we handled it right. We know our opponent is very strong so we’re going to have to have that edge coming to the rink. We’ve gotta get rid of that last game and we can only do that by proving it in our play in the next game.”
So while Maurice fully expects his troops to be a “pretty darn focused group” for Tuesday’s 6 p.m. CT faceoff at Scotiabank Arena, the Maple Leafs are also looking to regain some momentum after suffering back-to-back regulation losses for the first time this season. And Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe feels the way his team played so well in stifling Edmonton last week — outscoring the Oilers 13-1 in dominating fashion — might come into play against a Winnipeg team that presents some similar challenges in terms of its forward group.
“Obviously, what we did in Edmonton is a real good example of how we need to play against elite forwards,” Keefe said on Monday, adding that the North Division overall has provided his team with good practice in handling that kind of challenge.
“Winnipeg certainly has an abundance of forwards as well. So we have to just stay with that model and be consistent with it. Be responsible with the puck, and when we don’t have it, know to have as many numbers as we can above the puck.”
While both teams — and the rest of the division — possess more than their fair share of offensive talent, there is a growing feeling all the Canadian-based teams have developed a more structured style of play as they reach or approach the midway point of their seasons.
“Other teams have been doing the same thing to us,” Keefe pointed out during his Zoom call media availability session. “We’ve seen that with Calgary and Vancouver of late, they’ve played hard on us to generate offence. I just think the more teams are settling into the season and their systems and getting to know all their opponents, they’re just going to continue to be harder and we have to continue to do that ourselves.”
Maurice is also not expecting “run and gun” to be the order of the day for this three-game series, but he also doesn’t think it will be non-stop battling on the boards and in the trenches, either.
“The best teams do both. The teams in the top 10 of the league are going to grind you, they’re going to play hard defensively and they’re also going to generate offence,” explained Maurice, who also confirmed he will be staying with the same lineup and forward combinations as two nights ago.
“Those are the most exciting games. You gotta be careful coming to the rink and thinking this is gonna be fun because we get to trade chances. When you lose that game, you’re not very happy with your performance. And when you win it, you don’t get as much out of it as you think.”
Interestingly enough, players on both teams did not try to downplay the significance of what could be a very important series in the grand scheme of things.
“Looking back to that first game in here we didn’t play very good. I think we’re a lot better team than what we showed,” said Adam Lowry. “We’re getting a lot closer to the identity of how we want to play. That’s big, that’s fast and kind of imposing our will. That’s controlling the puck and playing with pace. Obviously, the Leafs are rolling. They’ve lost a couple but they’ve had a great start to the year.”
Lowry also made no secret about his team’s success hinging on containing Toronto’s speed.
“They’re a terrific transition team, they feast off turnovers. They’ve got some real high-end talent up front so it’s going to be important that we try and get some zone time on them and limit the chances they get just by careless plays by us,” was how Lowry described one of the keys to winning. The Jets will also need to stay out of the penalty box against the NHL’s No. 1-ranked powerplay, which is operating at an astounding 31.3 per cent efficiency.
But there is just as much respect and awareness of what effect these three games could have on the Maple Leafs’ “currently comfortable” lead atop the division, according to defenceman Travis Dermott.
“It’s a big game for us to learn where we are and be comfortable and confident with how our season has been going,” said the fourth-year blueliner. “You always want to be on top of that and moving in the right direction, and pushing teams in the wrong direction. That’s our goal and it’s going to be a big test.”