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Photo Credit: © Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Leafs lose second straight in chippy affair with the Jets

After clawing back from a 3-0 deficit to earn a point in Minnesota on Saturday evening, the Leafs’ second straight comeback bid fell short against the Jets on Sunday night but they showed a different kind of resolve, despite losing their second consecutive game. More concerning than the two points they were unable to claim is the potential loss of Rasmus Sandin who was forced to leave the game in the third period and was unable to return, but more on that in a minute.

Winnipeg has struggled to find offense as of late but were coming off of an 8-4 win over New Jersey in their last game and they continued the offensive onslaught against Toronto on Sunday. The Jets opened the scoring early in the first period with Wayne Simmonds sitting in the box for slashing but the Leafs were able to kill off another Jets powerplay opportunity shortly after to help settle the game down. Pierre-Luc Dubois was called for an offensive zone tripping penalty late in the period and after the Leafs’ top unit was unable to generate anything of consequence, Pierre Engvall found Michael Bunting out front to tie the game with the powerplay winding down.

As he has done so often this season, Bunting drew a penalty late in the opening frame and the Leafs began the second period on the powerplay. They were unable to capitalize and things quickly went downhill from there as the team’s defensive structure got away from them and Joseph Woll was left out to dry. The Leafs gave up a bevy of odd-man rushes and though Woll did manage a few big stops, the Jets took advantage and extended their lead to 5-1 just over halfway through the period.

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Much like they did in Minnesota on Saturday, however, the Leafs pushed back and after a 5-on-3 powerplay marker by Auston Matthews, Ondrej Kase scored a lucky one as he snuck it between Connor Hellebuyck and the goal post to bring the Leafs to within two.

Though they made it interesting to start the final period, the Leafs appeared to run out of gas in the second game of a back-to-back and the Jets controlled the play early in the third. Woll made a few difficult stops with the Jets looking to extend their lead once again but the Leafs were unable to make good on their chances at the other end. With the play heading towards Winnipeg’s end, Dubois and Matthews got tangled up in a wrestling match in the Leafs’ zone and were assessed coincidental minor penalties, but that was just the beginning of what would become a chippy affair.

With the Leafs pressing to make it a one-goal game, Sandin jumped up into the rush and was met in the slot by Neal Pionk who caught him with a knee-on-knee hit.

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There was no call on the play and the Leafs’ bench was clearly incensed and Jason Spezza decided to take matters into his own hands a couple of shifts later when he saw a sprawling Pionk trying to clear the Jets’ zone. Don’t be surprised if both Pionk and Spezza get phone calls from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety when the dust settles on Monday.

During the ensuing break in play, Sandin was helped across the ice to the locker room and was unable to put any weight on his right leg. Sheldon Keefe had no update on Sandin’s status following the game but it sure looks like the young blueliner is set to miss some time.

Keefe and his squad weren’t satisfied following Spezza’s run at Pionk, though, and their intent was clear when Simmonds was out there along with Kyle Clifford who took the next faceoff – not something Clifford has done very often in his career. Simmonds took a cross-checking penalty right off the draw and a scrum ensued as he tried his very best to get Logan Stanley to drop the gloves. The officials had to force him into the penalty box as he still had a hold of Stanley’s helmet and in an effort to quell the rising tension, assessed Simmonds a ten-minute misconduct for his efforts.

Mark Scheifele scored on the resulting powerplay to put the Jets up 6-3 but the score seemed to be of little interest to the Buds at that point as they continued to seek out their pound of flesh. Clifford decided it was time to do his part and he got the mitts off with hard-nosed defender Brenden Dillon, earning a decisive win in their spirited tilt.

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Simmonds wasn’t done either, and after serving his time in the sin bin, went after Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey with a hard hit in the corner. After they exchanged a couple of cross-checks, Stanley came to Morrissey’s aid and Simmonds was quick to start swinging this time.

The Leafs will be disappointed in the final score but it was encouraging to see this team stand up for each other the way they did on Sunday night, especially after being so heavily criticized for lacking that kind of pushback in recent years. Even through a tough road trip that saw them drop back-to-back games, the signs that this Leafs team is different were plain to see. That can be considered a win on its own.

Third Star: The Jet’s transition offense

The game really got away from the Leafs in the first half of the second period as they gave up several odd-man rushes and the Jets made them pay. Toronto’s defenders got sloppy with a couple of pinches and the forwards were unable to apply adequate back-pressure to force the issue for Winnipeg’s attacking forwards. The Leafs will be looking to get back to their stout defensive play next time out.

Second Star: The Leafs’ pushback

The collective physical response – most notably from guys like Simmonds, Clifford, and Spezza – was noteworthy and on a night where not much went right for the Leafs, that is something they can hang their hat on. It’s impossible to quantify but nights like tonight can help forge bonds amongst teammates and build camaraderie in the room.

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First Star: Blake Wheeler

Wheeler played in his 1000th NHL game on Sunday night and celebrated the occasion by racking up a couple of assists as his team came out victorious. It has been an impressive career for the fifth-overall pick from the 2004 draft and he is still one of Winnipeg’s most important players at 35 years of age.

40th Star: Neal Pionk

Pionk is gaining a bit of a reputation, at least within the Leafs’ dressing room. There was last year’s incident where he took a questionable run at Mitch Marner as Marner was scoring a putaway goal on the empty net, and now there is tonight’s knee-on-knee collision that knocked Sandin out of the game. Pionk doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt and that hit should earn him a couple of games from the league.

What’s next?

The Leafs will travel back home and prepare to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night. They will be trying to get back on track against a Blue Jackets team that has lost four of its last five games but is coming off of a 6-4 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday. It seems likely that Sandin will be unavailable to play, meaning Travis Dermott likely slots back in on a defensive unit that will be looking to tighten things up after a sloppy night in Winnipeg. The Leafs will also be hoping to have Mitch Marner back in the lineup after missing the last two games but his status remains unclear.