After the Canadian division season, the anticipation is always heightened when the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets square off (7 p.m. EST, TSN 3&4).
The Leafs took the first game of the two-game season series back in game six of the regular season by a score of 4-1, but the two teams are in a much different place now than they were back in mid-October.
The Leafs and Jets are playing to a really similar overall points pace and goal differential through 45 games; the Jets are just two points back and one goal behind the Leafs‘ +31 GD. The Leafs are controlling the run of play at a superior level to the Jets, but Winnipeg has the better special teams thus far (a top-10 power play and the second-best penalty kill) and is predictably receiving fantastic goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck.
Much of the Jets’ core talent has seen a notable uptick under new head coach Rick Bowness, with many of his top offensive producers currently on career-best 82-game paces, including Kyle Connor (40 goals, 98 points), Pierre-Luc Dubois (36 goals, 89 points), Josh Morrissey (15 goals, 89 points), and Mark Scheifele (47 goals).
The offensive talent at the top of each lineup and the close proximity in the league standings sets the stage for an intriguing matchup that has also often brought extra oomph in regard to the physical play and post-whistle skirmishes since the rivalry kicked off during the Canadian division season.
The October 2022 meeting between the teams featured Morgan Rielly fighting Josh Morrissey for a questionable hit on Nick Robertson as well as unsportsmanlike conducts for Rielly, Michael Bunting, Brendan Dillon, and Wayne Simmonds.
The Leafs are currently in a stretch of games — Boston, Florida, and Winnipeg — where the physicality of the games has noticeably ratcheted up a notch against some strong opposition, which makes for a little bit of a playoff-style test in the dog days of the regular season.
In lineup news, the Leafs will get Rasmus Sandin back from illness, and it will be Jordie Benn shifting to the right and Conor Timmins making way to accommodate his return. In net, Samsonov looks to continue his momentum from a strong 11-save relief effort in the Leafs’ comeback win over Florida on Tuesday. Samsonov recorded the win against the Jets back in October, stopping 30 of 31 in a 4-1 Leafs win.
Head to Head: Jets vs. Maple Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Jets in four out of five offensive categories and three out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the Jets’ success so far this season under new head coach Rick Bowness:
Their goaltending and special teams have been really strong for them. That gives them a chance to win every game. With that, you get greater confidence in your team and team play. You get positivity around your team.
Rick has clearly done a good job there. Their team is believing. They’ve always had really good and dangerous players. They’re having really good years. They have a lot of things going their way for them.
There is a lot to contend with tonight.
Keefe on the history of physical games against the Jets:
A lot of it comes through the Canadian division and playing them as often as we did. Whenever that happens, I think you just tend to be that much more alert, that much more aware, and have that much more respect for your opponent when you see them that often.
We have played a number of games like that recently whether that is Boston the other night or a divisional opponent like Florida and what they bring. To that end, I think our players are getting comfortable in these spots.
It is fitting that we have been through them and expect more of the same tonight.
Keefe on whether he thinks the team has improved over past years when it comes to standing up for one another in physical games:
I think some of the dynamics of some of our players have changed. It is not the kind of thing I think a lot about. All I would say is that I have been really happy with how we have addressed any of those situations that have come up during the season at different points — most recently just the other night, but all throughout the season, when a situation has come up, I have really liked our response.
Keefe on the decision to start Ilya Samsonov tonight:
In a situation like this, the decision is quite easy. Sammy came in and did a terrific job for us. Murray is coming off playing two in a row. This is an easy one.
Rick Bowness on the anticipation for tonight’s matchup:
This should be a great hockey game. They have a very impressive [home] record. I know Sheldon and his staff have done a great job of cutting down their goals and chances against. We are going to have to work for everything we get.
We take pride in our goals against as well. It should be a very entertaining game because they can score and we have some guys who can score.
These are the kinds of games, coming in here once a year, that you should get very excited about. We all are.
Bowness on the Leafs’ defensive improvements:
Collectively, they have all bought in. I haven’t watched a lot of them — just the last couple of games now — but it just seems to me it is harder to get the grade-A chances against them.
That means the whole five-man unit is out there working together — not just one or two guys. They don’t give you a lot of room. We are going to have to work for everything we get.
Bowness on his own team’s defensive improvements this season over last:
We just noticed, when looking at the analytics, how many grade-As they gave up in front of the net. We have tried very hard to clean that up.
There have been some games where we haven’t been as good — Montreal comes to mind — but for the most part, we have cut down on the grade-As in front of our net, which we have tried to do.
We are giving up some more outside shots than we are happy with, but we are willing to do that as long as we are protecting the front of the net, not giving them the rebounds, and letting them walk right down the middle downtown to get those grade-As.
That is going to happen against really good teams, and it is going to happen when you are off your game a little bit. But for the most part, we have put a lot of focus on that.
Bowness on the improved culture around his team this season:
It goes back to the players buying in. Our players are very proud. They were very disappointed in how last season went. They wanted to put that behind them.
They wanted changes. We gave them changes. They wanted more of a voice in the locker room. We gave that to them. We gave them a couple of changes in the way they play.
The biggest thing is that they were hurt by how they were perceived last year in terms of the culture. They were hurt by their play.
Give the players all of the credit. They came back to training camp with the attitude that they wanted to win. They wanted to prove last year was a one-off and that they are a much better team and a much tighter team than the perception of last year.
Jets forward Cole Perfetti on the Jets’ rivalry with the Leafs:
We don’t see each other that much these last few years — just a couple of times a year — but there is just something about it. We put a bad taste in each other’s mouths. We are kind of sour about one another. I am not sure why. I am new to it all.
In the first game this season, they came into our building and took two points from us. We know what we have to do tonight to get kind of get a little bit of revenge on that.
It is a fun game. Two really good teams going at it. We are excited to play.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#74 Bobby McMann – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #20 Dryden Hunt
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #18 Jordie Benn
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Conor Timmins, Wayne Simmonds
Injured/Out: TJ Brodie, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
#81 Kyle Connor – #80 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #26 Blake Wheeler
#36 Morgan Barron – #55 Mark Scheifele – #27 Nikolaj Ehlers
#91 Cole Perfetti – #17 Adam Lowry – #8 Saku Maenalanen
#20 Karson Kuhlman – #28 Kevin Stenlund – #89 Sam Gagner
#44 Josh Morrissey – #2 Dylan DeMelo
#5 Brendan Dillon – #4 Neal Pionk
#14 Ville Heinola – #88 Nate Schmidt
Starter: #37 Connor Hellebuyck
#33 David Rittich
Injured/Out: Mason Appleton, Logan Stanley, David Gustafsson