Winnipeg Jets hand Toronto Maple Leafs third straight loss, gain ground in North Division

TORONTO — The Maple Leafs extended their season-long losing streak to three games after Tuesday’s 4-3 defeat to the Winnipeg Jets, blowing their early lead and failing to re-group in time to salvage even one point. 

“You either have winning habits or you have losing habits,” declared head coach Sheldon Keefe afterwards. “And when you have losing habits, you end up giving up free goals, and then when you aren’t scoring enough on the other side of it, you lose games. So we’ve got to get back to having consistent winning habits and we’ll find that things will end up working out in our favour in the end.”

Keefe pointed out Toronto’s two losses to Vancouver last week and Tuesday’s final result were in stark contrast to the Leafs’ three consecutive wins over Edmonton (Feb. 27th, March 1st and 3rd), where Toronto was completely dominant in holding the Oilers to just one goal over the three games.

“It’s disappointing,” Keefe stated, “that after perhaps three of our best games of the season in Edmonton that we’ve followed it up here now with not poor performances – we’ve played fine in each game – but just not doing enough of the little things well that end up getting you to find ways to win games.”

Tuesday’s game against the Jets started out well enough for Toronto. Zach Hyman had them on the board early in the first period, scoring off the rush with a nice backhand shot over Connor Hellebuyck

But Andrew Copp had the quick answer for Winnipeg on its second power-play try of the night, before Auston Matthews gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes with a man-advantage goal of his own. 

Still grappling with a wrist injury, Matthews had moved to the net-front spot on Toronto’s power play. That marker was his first in five games, busting the longest scoring drought of his season and adding to his league lead in goals with 19. He’d have another before the end of the night to become the first player this season to reach 20 goals in the NHL. 

“Once you get out there, [the pain you’re dealing with] kind of goes away,” Matthews said of pocketing a pair. “I felt fine today, my legs felt good. We did some good stuff tonight. You’d like to get the two points but I think it’s always positive when you’re helping the team in different areas of the game.”

But after Matthews’ initial goal, that would be all the offence Toronto could muster until it was too little, too late for a comeback.

Winnipeg was the only side finding twine in the second period, although Matthews inadvertently helped their cause when Josh Morrissey’s shot went off the centre’s foot and fooled Frederik Andersen. Kyle Connor’s 12th goal of the season, gifted in part by Toronto’s lazy line change, would give the Jets a 3-2 lead going into the third period. 

Mason Appleton put Winnipeg up by two midway through the final frame on a hard-driving play to the net, and despite the Leafs’ ample zone time they couldn’t come up with a response.

It wasn’t until 1:54 remained in regulation that Matthews potted his second of the game, a 6-on-5 goal that was all the Leafs could muster before that final horn sounded. And there was much left to be desired in how Toronto finished out the night. 

“A winning habit simply for me is just when we don’t have a play, and there’s nothing happening, you’re forcing the play through the middle of the ice versus just moving the puck forward and putting it to a safe place and get structure around it,” Keefe explained of what went wrong with Toronto. “[Tonight], we were stuck in the neutral zone and we’re tired and we turn it over when we need to get fresh guys on, we’re caught in the line change and then you don’t have any structure coming back into your end and the puck’s in your net. Things like that. When you’re not scoring enough to allow for mistakes like that, you’ve just got to keep piling on positive and good habits and, over time, things will find their way.”

The Leafs did outshoot Winnipeg 39-23 on the night, and Keefe admitted Hellebuyck was the Jets’ “best player” in a 37-save performance, while Andersen made 19 saves for an .826 save percentage. 

“We had some chances, we didn’t capitalize on our chances, and they had some grade-A opportunities that they were able to capitalize on,” surmised Hyman. “They’ve got a bunch of elite players that can make plays and we just have to be ready for them for a full 60. It could have gone either way I think but they were able to capitalize a little bit more than us.”

Toronto won’t have to wait long for a rematch, with two more games against Winnipeg this week alone. The Jets are now just five points back of the Leafs for first in the North Division, with two games in hand. But Toronto’s not ready to concede anything just yet, and pledge to use this rough patch as motivation. 

“I think we’re in a good spot, I think all teams go through adversity,” Hyman said. “This is the first time [this season] we’ve lost three in a row. And we want to bounce back, we’re not happy about it, especially [losing to] the team that’s chasing us. But all teams face adversity during the year and it’s a good thing to go through a little adversity.”​

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