The Winnipeg Jets ended the regular season with a hard-fought 4-2 win over the first place Toronto Maple Leafs Friday night and now shift their focus to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, beginning Wednesday in Edmonton.
The Leafs had won four straight in Winnipeg, but the Jets closed out the season with their first back-to-back wins in a month and they’re finally feeling good again heading into the playoffs.
“Excited about having an opportunity to compete in the playoffs,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “That’s what you play for. You play for a chance to play in the playoffs. One of 16 teams that has a chance to win it all. Nobody picked us to be alive right now, so we have a lot to be proud of for the way we competed in the regular season.”
Most encouraging for the Jets is the resurgence of their top line. Wheeler recorded two assists against the Leafs and enters the playoffs with 13 points in the last nine games. Mark Scheifele also had a pair of helpers to stretch his point streak to five games, and Kyle Connor is just as hot after notching two more goals in the finale, and he’s now scored four goals in his last three games.
“I think we’re playing (some) of the best hockey that we have all season,” said Connor. “We’re a pretty confident group and we got one of the best goaltenders in the world, so we can rally around that. We know we’re a great hockey team and can easily win this series and make a good run here.”
The Jets played their final regular season game without forward Andrew Copp and defenceman Tucker Poolman who are healing up from minor ailments for the playoffs.
Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois both had to leave Friday’s game with injuries, but both aren’t considered serious, and they’re expected to be ready to go for Game 1 on Wednesday.
“They’re both going to be fine we believe,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “Precautionary to say the least. We just didn’t want it to get worse, so nobody on the bench got to stay if they had anything that was a nick.
“They’ll be in the opening night lineup.”
Pierre Engvall opened the scoring for the Leafs just past the seven-minute mark, getting a step on a back-checking Pierre-Luc Dubois and ripped a wrist shot through Connor Hellebuyck’s five-hole.
Engvall has been on a tear recently, scoring four goals in his past five games and currently has seven on the season.
Dominic Toninato joined the Jets lineup for a rare appearance on the third line beside Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. The 27-year-old was drafted by the Maple Leafs back in 2012 and has played only two games for the Jets this season after appearing in 46 last season with the Florida Panthers.
Less than 90 seconds into the middle frame, Morgan Rielly did exactly what every defenceman is taught never to do; skate the puck in front of your own net and try to stickhandle around forecheckers. Lowry knocked the puck loose and Toninato followed up, sending the puck toward the net for a waiting Appleton. The Wisconsin product grabbed the rolling puck and roofed it up and over Jack Campbell for his 12th of the season to even the score. Unfortunately for the Jets, the even score didn’t last long.
The Maple Leafs took back the lead just after the five-minute mark following sustained offensive zone pressure which hemmed the Jets in their own end. Alex Kerfoot grabbed a loose puck and fed it to Jake Muzzin on the point. Ilya Mikheyev tipped the point shot from Muzzin and then grabbed his own rebound for an easy tap in and his seventh of the year.
Connor scored 25 goals for the fourth straight season after a perfect pass from Scheifele on a two-on-one midway through the second period. Scheifele fed the pass across just before T.J. Brodie laid his stick on the ice, leaving Connor all alone easily faking out Campbell to even the score. The tying goal was Connor’s third goal in three games after going the previous eight games without a point.
Scheifele’s assist was his 305th with team as it moved him past Bryan Little for the second most assists in franchise history.
Connor found the back of the net once again following a clean faceoff win in the Toronto zone and a crisp set up pass from Wheeler. About a minute after Hellebuyck slammed the door on Auston Matthews, the Jets took the lead as their top line stayed hot with all three forwards picking up a point on Connor’s 26th of the year. Scheifele picked up his second and team-leading 42nd assist on the go-ahead goal.
Stastny left the game early in the first period after a seemingly routine check from Leafs defenceman Justin Holl. Stastny laboured off the ice and stayed on the bench for about a minute before heading down the tunnel to the dressing room to be evaluated. He returned to the bench shortly after the Leafs’ opening goal, but left again before the third period.
Hellebuyck maintains the title of most shots faced this season, passing 1300 during the final regular season game.
With about seven minutes left in the third, Dubois left the game and headed down the tunnel.
Jansen Harkins outskated Wayne Simmonds for the rolling puck and tucked in the insurance goal to cement the 4-2 victory.
As Winnipeg gears up for the playoffs, the Jets are hopeful for a speedy return for Nikolaj Ehlers who skated this morning in a yellow non-contact jersey. The Dane has missed the past 16 games with a suspected shoulder injury.
The Jets also announced their year-end awards on Friday. Hellebuyck was named the winner of their Three Stars Award for the most three-star selections during the regular season.
Wheeler won the Community Service Award for his work outside the rink.
While Neal Pionk was presented the Dan Snyder Memorial Award for perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition.
Winnipeg ends the regular season with a record of 30-23-3 and will face the Oilers in Edmonton at 8 p.m. on Wednesday in Game 1 of their first-round series.