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Maple Leafs Nosedive in loss to Surging Jets to Start Second Half of Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs, losers of four out of their last five games in regulation, were flat against a Winnipeg Jets team that are making their case for the North Division crown.

In what was billed as a potential playoffs preview of the best two teams in the North Division based on points percentage, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets lived up to the intensity. 

Unfortunately for the home team, the ending was all too familiar.

"We weren't even close with how we played tonight," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following a 5-2 loss on Saturday.

Although both teams split the first two games of the three-game set, those matches were identical in flow. Toronto outclassed Winnipeg in every advanced metric you could dig up, but Connor Hellebuyck was dominant in goal. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner made several game-saving stops to prevent Toronto from opening the floodgates. When Toronto had lapses in their play, Winnipeg took advantage.

On this night, Toronto's inability to generate scoring chances bewildered their coach. With Hellebuyck given the night off in favour of backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit, Winnipeg finished with 14 high-danger scoring chances at even strength, compared to just three by Toronto, according to analytics website NaturalStatTrick.com.

"I don't think we really tested their goalie tonight," Leafs captain John Tavares said."

A lack of puck possession couldn't explain the lack of execution. Toronto finished the game with 7:33 of offensive-zone possession time compared to just 5:53 by Winnipeg, according to Sportlogiq.

"I thought we had a real hard time stringing together two passes tonight," Keefe said.

Toronto's misfortune started early when they had a goal taken away by a Jets' successful challenge at 1:25 of the first period. 

Pierre Engvall's wrist shot beat Brossoit so fast that it sent the lid of the goaltender's water bottle into the stands. But the play was set up by a hand pass committed by Travis Dermott.

Toronto's top line wasn't much of a threat against Winnipeg. Auston Matthews, continuing to play with a sore wrist, lost his first four faceoffs against the Jets. He ended up finishing the night at 44 percent. But his line combined for just three shots on goal and mostly ineffective on the night.

After a goalless first period, the Jets opened the scoring when Adam Lowry's pass went off the skate of a surging Mason Appleton, who directed the puck past Toronto's Frederik Andersen for a 1-0 lead at 1:41.

The Leafs tied the game at 5:03 when Jake Muzzin scored the team's first shorthanded goal of the season. William Nylander gave Toronto the lead when he looked off Tavares on his right side and beat Brossoit at 7:12.

Winnipeg tied the game when Paul Stastny deflected a shot from the point by Mark Scheifele past Andersen at 16:34.

It was the fourth time in the three-game set that the Jets erased a one-goal lead by Toronto.

Winnipeg didn't look back from there.

Lowry beat Andersen clean from the slot to put the Jets on top 3-2 at 7:39 of the third period.

"I think the third goal I'd like back," Andersen said. "I thought he was going upstairs with me so that obviously hurt us."

Toronto got into penalty trouble shortly after that. Nikolai Ehlers drew an interference call from Morgan Rielly. The Toronto defenseman put his arms up to avoid Ehlers, who was speeding in his direction.

Ehlers scored on the ensuing power play at 14:34.

Down 4-2, Toronto pulled Andersen with 4:24 remaining in regulation. Seven seconds later, the officials issued a penalty to Zach Hyman for interference.

Already upset from Rielly's call, the offensive-zone penalty to Toronto set off Keefe, who yelled at the officials before his team was assessed a bench minor.

"Just a disagreement with the refs, that happens a lot," Rielly said as he minimized the situation. "It is what it is; no point on dwelling on the past."

Scheifele scored on the 5-on-3 to cap a string of four unanswered goals for Winnipeg.

Andersen finished the night with 27 saves on 32 shots.

"Not good enough to win, obviously," Andersen said of his performance.

Since returning from a lower-body injury on Mar. 3, Andersen has posted an .879 save percentage in five starts. With backup goaltender Jack Campbell still on the shelf with a re-aggravation of his leg injury, Toronto has been riding their starter, who refused to answer if the injury that kept him out of the lineup for four games was still bothering him.

Although Andersen's performance wasn't bad, it wasn't great either. And that was magnified by the way the team played in front of him.

"We've got to be cleaner in our own zone and breakouts," Jake Muzzin said. [We] spend too much time in the zone and fatigue and [we're not] as efficient as usual and we're tired."

The Leafs have 27 games remaining in their schedule and six of them will be against the Jets, who moved to four points back of Toronto for the North Division lead with two games in hand. 

The three-game series in Toronto felt like a closely contested playoff series. Winnipeg's goaltending stole them first game and nearly stole them the second game. With the series tied 1-1, Game 3 had three lead changes.  

The Jets sent the Leafs a warning that they're coming for the division crown.

"It'll be interesting down the stretch," Rielly said of the Jets. "It's important we learn from these games and move forward."

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