WINNIPEG - The Maple Leafs points’ streak was sucked into the Jet stream on Tuesday night.
For the second time in five weeks, the newly minted seventh Canadian team drained the Leafs’ flow at the MTS Centre in a one-goal result. Badly needing some traction after winning just five times since the Leafs were here on New Year’s Eve, the low-scoring Jets hung on 2-1. Prior to that, their scores in 2012 had looked liked they’d come from the English Premiership.
With points in six straight games and seven of the past eight, this was one of the few times this season when faced with back-to-back games, that the Leafs looked like the travel had caught up. Mistakes were evident, though Toronto was also guilty of over-passing — “too many pretty plays,” said winger Joey Crabb — and the result was an ugly finish where the Leafs couldn’t pull goalie Jonas Gustavsson cleanly in the final minute.
“The Jets did a good job in their zone, but we didn’t direct enough pucks to the net,” coach Ron Wilson said of managing just 18 shots on goal. “We were trying to make the extra pass, the extra play. We didn’t scramble things enough.”
Wilson tried some line changes at the end of the game to no avail. This was the second of 15 games in 31 nights for Toronto, which had idled in seventh place in the Eastern Conference when results from around the National Hockey League came in.
“The back-to-backs are never easy, but everyone has to do them,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “That’s no excuse tonight. They sat back and trapped us up and we had a tough time getting through it.”
After a couple of close calls for Toronto when it had 3-on-1’s down low, the “horse race” that Jets coach Claude Noel had feared from the Leafs broke from the gate. The Leafs won a scrum in their zone with Joffrey Lupul sending a perfect bank pass to a streaking Phil Kessel. He shook Tobias Enstrom and snapped in his 30th of the year. That kind of hustle led to a few early chances for the Leafs.
Kessel has now cracked the 30-mark in all three of his seasons as a Leaf, a feat last accomplished by this Saturday night’s special guest at the Air Canada Centre, Mats Sundin. Kessel didn’t speak to the media afterwards about his milestone.
“He’s in a position now where he should get 40 goals,” Wilson said.
Kessel and Crabb later tested another Leafs mark, when they both served minors. But the Leafs killed the penalties, their 23rd and 24th consecutive since last allowing a power-play goal on New Year’s Eve at MTS. That also took them through 16 clean slate games, the most since 1940-41 for a Toronto team and within three games of a league mark set the 1969 Chicago Blackhawks.
How dialed in are the Leafs when down a man? When they left two Jets open at the side of the net, the duo almost tripped over each other and missed the tap in.
“We did a great job on the PK, but our power play (0-for-2, with a chance late in the third) didn’t get the job done,” Wilson said.
Crabb came out of the boxafter his penalty and made a great play to send Matthew Lombardi away, but Ondrej Pavelec didn’t flinch.
Toronto’s 1-0 lead held for three minutes, until Chris Thorburn went outside on defenceman Luke Schenn and fired a backhand into a gaping hole Gustavsson left for him on the far side. The Jets moved ahead on a similar looking play midway through the game, Blake Wheeler skirting Franson and though Gustvasson made the save, Lombardi couldn’t stop Bryan Little from stuffing in the rebound.
The Jets, meanwhile, have been starving on offence, six goals in their previous six games and never more than 30 shots on goal. It would have been a good time for Nikolai Kulemin to get on the bandwagon with centre Mikhail Grabovski and left winger Clarke MacArthur, but he was among the misfiring Leafs.
The Leafs will hop a plane Wednesday for a match in Philadelphia on Thursday where brothers Luke and Brayden Schenn will be banging helmets, no doubt amid more trade talk surrounding Luke.