Tuesday, March 9: 7 PM on TSN3 & TSN4
Thursday, March 11: 7 PM on TSN3 & TSN4
Saturday, March 13: 7 PM on HNIC, Sportsnet Ontario, streaming on CBC Gem
This week brings us the Leafs playing four games and then embarking on the first of two four-day breaks this month. After the three Jets games above, the Leafs have a back-to-back with travel on Sunday as they head to Ottawa to play the Senators. As travel goes, it’s light, but will that be the cherry on top of a successful week or something less tasty? That’s a problem for the weekend, for now, the Jets are here, and they are doing well to hold the second spot in the division.
Many things have changed since the Leafs beat the Jets in the fourth game of the season. I triple checked, but it is true — that’s the only meeting of these two teams so far this year. The Marlies have played the Moose so much, that it seemed like we are always at war with Manitoba. But no, we got that one game of the Laine Jets,and he wasn’t even on the roster that night, and now they’re the Pierre-Luc Dubois Jets. Yeah, well, we have a Pierre too, so be quiet.
Both coaches said yesterday they were going with the same lineup from their last game:
Jack Campbell and Wayne Simmonds are both progressing, and Simmonds has his cast off, so he needs conditioning first, but is rounding the corner to return.
The halfway point of the season arrives for the Leafs after Thursday’s game, while for the Jets it comes next week after they return home. This series could set the table for the second half for both teams, with the Leafs leading the North now with a points percentage of .731, the Jets are second at .646. If the Leafs win all three, their points percentage rises to .759 while the Jets would fall to .574, likely below the Canadiens again. On the other hand, if the Jets sweep, then they move into first place with .685 and the Leafs drop down fast to .655.
The Jets have had good results this season, with a lot of close games that have gone their way more often than not. Winning a tight game is easier with a very good goalie, and they’ve had Connor Hellebuyck in net for 19 of their games so far. There are only eight goalies in the NHL with that many appearances. Frederik Andersen is just behind him with 18. But a funny thing happened on the way to this mid-point of the season. Maybe Andersen missed exactly the right games, or maybe he has settled down and is playing his best, but a few weeks ago, Hellebuyck was the undisputed best goalie in the North, and Andersen was a solid, well performing second. However, now they have almost identical results by Expected Goals, each saving two goals over the performance of an average goalie facing the same shots.
Two goals doesn’t sound like a lot, but they are top 10 in the NHL for goalies with at least 15 appearances. They lag well back of the amazing Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury, but are not that far behind stars like Thatcher Demko, Igor Shesterkin and Darcy Kuemper. (Short seasons are weird.)
Neither goalie wishes to discuss their last game, however. On Saturday night, while the Leafs were losing in desultory fashion to the Canucks, the Jets got to witness the Habs getting their mojo back — up close and personal. Hellebuyck was chased after giving up four goals of an eventual 7-1 beatdown, so the Jets are in a mood, is what I’m saying.
Compounding that humiliation, the Jets and Hellebuyck were stomped 4-0 by the Canucks a few days earlier. It’s very tempting to look back at that week and say, well obviously the Canucks were on a roll, and the Jets have hit the skids, and the Leafs shouldn’t be worried about how they played in Vancouver, and the Jets will be easy to beat. That’s how you turn the human tendency to believe really hard that what happened yesterday is what will happen today into a self-serving narrative.
Destiny or not, the Jets need to take some wins off of the Leafs this week. They have the Montreal Canadians hot on their heels again, and if they want to hold this spot in the standings, beating the team in front of them is the best way to prove they deserve it. All they need to do is remember what’s on the line, and play these games hard.
That’s what you call a “you just have to want it” narrative, and that paragraph is for sale to any Jets writer who needs something to say about a meeting of two teams that is about as mysterious as it gets in this season.
The mystery is how the Jets have held second place. They are a poor-quality team by almost any measure you like at five-on-five. Their power play has not worked out much better without Patrik Laine, and they rely very heavily on their goalie. The Leafs aren’t a great deal better defensively, just enough to give Andersen the margin for error that lets him duplicate Hellebuyck’s results, but they are leading the NHL in offence by most measures. When they give way, like in five-on-five Expected Goals For, they stay in the top five.
So how have the Jets won so much? It’s not a shooting spike, not anymore, although that played a role early on in the season. The team isn’t terrible. They aren’t bottom third of the league, they’re just good enough, that if they get into close low-scoring games, they win them with luck and Hellebuyck, particularly in a division where most teams will give up at least one more goal every game than they’d like.
Meanwhile, the Leafs have worked hard to be excellent in all categories, but to beat them, just shut down their offence. Simple. Except with the rise of the HEM line lately, that’s tougher to do. If that line can gain the offensive zone against the Jets, the Leafs can score from any line, then everything is wonderful, and eventually Hellebuyck will crack. If they or the top two lines get hemmed in, you’ve got Andersen in a goalie duel he might actually be up for.
Go Leafs Go! Win all three and we’ll love you forever. (Or until you lose to Ottawa again.)