WINNIPEG – Blake Wheeler scored twice as the Winnipeg Jets outhustled and outmuscled the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 Tuesday night, making a playoff spot look more plausible in the process.
“They’ve taken more of a blue-collar approach,” Wheeler said of the 2013 Leafs. “I think they’ve been physical with teams and it’s been something they’ve been successful with this year. We were expecting that. . . We wanted to match them.”
Match them they did, right down the line, agreed Jets coach Claude Noel.
“I thought that we had a lot of emotion in the game,” he said.
“I thought we had a lot of good games tonight from a lot of players. I thought guys played hard and weren’t going to be denied.”
Nik Antropov, Kyle Wellwood and Evander Kane also scored for the Jets (13-11-2), who have won three of their past four games. Dustin Byfuglien had three assists and Antropov had two.
Phil Kessel scored both goals for Toronto (15-11-1), which is winless in three straight.
Noel had high praise in particular for captain Andrew Ladd for setting the tone, even getting into a scrap with Leafs’ captain Dion Phaneuf in the first period.
“It wasn’t the greatest fight. Probably like a grade 7 dance,” Ladd said with a grin after the game.
The Jets all agreed killing a 5-on-3 penalty in the second period was a huge factor in the win.
“I think the 5-on-3 was the turning point of the game,” said Wheeler.
Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec was solid but he said he got a lot of help from his teammates. Zach Bogosian got in the way of almost every decent shot the Leafs managed for two minutes.
“Shortly after that we scored a goal to make it 3-1 and that sort of elevated the emotion in the building,” said Noel.
Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t saying much after the loss.
“The emotions are high,” he said, appearing anxious to get away. “We’ll regroup and reset our group and go forward.”
Leafs’ netminder James Reimer, a Manitoba native, was pulled late in the third after most of the damage had been done. He said Toronto will bounce back.
“We believe in each other,” he said. “Obviously tough times come and we know we’re not playing our best right now but, honestly, maybe that’s the best thing.
“If we were playing our best and still losing then you know we’d be in trouble. All we have to do is get back to, you know, what we do well and we’ll be fine.”
The last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is again in sight for the Jets as they sit tied with the New York Rangers at 28 points apiece, following the Rangers 3-1 loss to Buffalo Tuesday night.
Toronto dropped into sixth in the East, tied with Ottawa with 31 points.
Winnipeg drew first blood Tuesday when Byfuglien’s slapshot from the blue-line glanced off Antropov and past Reimer on the first power play of the game.
The Leafs tied things up just 38 seconds into the second when Kessel came in unassisted and slid one under Pavelec’s pads.
But the cheers of local Leafs fans—there are more than a few in Winnipeg—were stopped less than 30 seconds later when the Jets picked up their second as Wheeler slammed home Bryan Little’s rebound.
Wellwood made it 3-1 midway through the second and Winnipeg stretched its advantage in the third as Kane stole the puck near the red line and slipped between two players to beat Reimer 1-on-1.
Reimer was pulled and replaced by Ben Scrivens. But less than a minute later Wheeler swooped in front of the net and slid one in to make it 5-1.
Kessel scored the final goal of the game just 21 seconds after Wheeler as the win for Winnipeg evened its series with the Leafs this season. The decider is set for Saturday in Toronto.
Also key is Thursday’s visit to Winnipeg by the Rangers, with one team able to move into sole possession of that final playoff spot, at least temporarily.
Notes: Ladd continued his streak as one of only five players in the NHL who haven’t gone consecutive games without scoring a point. … Chris Thorburn marked his return to the Jets’ lineup by going at it with Toronto’s Colton Orr less than three minutes into the game.