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High-octane Leafs and stingy Jets renew ‘spicy’ rivalry

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The Maple Leafs (optional) and Winnipeg Jets skated at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. 


The Leafs youngest players are quickly learning that there's no easy games when you play for Toronto. 

"Everyone wants to play their best against us," said 21-year-old winger Matthew Knies. "I think everyone has us circled on their calendar, so that makes us kind of raise our level."

"Anyone who comes in our building probably has a little extra fire, so when a team comes out pretty hot we want to match that," said 22-year-old winger Nick Robertson. "I know they're hungry to beat us." 

In the centre of the hockey universe, it seems like everyone wants to make a positive impression. 

"It's a big market," Knies noted. "Everyone wants to win here."

It was after a win over Toronto on Dec. 6, 2021, that Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele declared, 'Is there anything better than beating the Leafs?' inside a jubilant dressing room. But the man behind Winnipeg's bench now isn't buying the idea that there's any extra motivation on Wednesday night. 

"It's no different than going anywhere else," insisted head coach Rick Bowness. "Listen, we want to play the same way in every rink and against every opponent. Yeah, we always love coming to Toronto, but we don't make any special deal or make any changes to the way we play."

"It's not because it's Toronto," stressed winger Nikolaj Ehlers. "It's because of who we've been this year. You know, we want to prove we're a top team in this league. We're going to give our best every single game, it doesn't matter who we're playing against. You might not get it, but we want to get to that point."

 

ContentId(1.2067042): Young Leafs quickly learn everyone brings their best against Toronto

This rivalry may not be about big market against small market, but more about national pride in this hockey-mad country. Both teams are in a playoff spot and vying to end Canada's Stanley Cup drought. 

"It's Canadian team against Canadian team," Ehlers said. "You look at our games against Calgary, against Edmonton, they're always going to be a little different, but they're always a lot of fun."

"It's just us Canadian teams," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "You saw that whether it was our games in Alberta or against Vancouver, it's just the Canadian factor, and then a lot of it perhaps is enhanced because of the time in the North Division."

Winnipeg and Toronto faced off 10 times back in 2021 when all the Canadian clubs were in the same division due to COVID travel restrictions. Now that the schedule is normal and fans are back in the building, it's even more of an event. 

"Only playing them twice a year adds to it," said Jets winger Cole Perfetti. "The anticipation builds up a little bit more." 

Last season, the Leafs swept both games against the Jets by identical 4-1 scores. 

"They're pretty intense," Robertson reflected when asked about the games. "Again, I think it will be a pretty spicy tonight. They're third in the league and first in the division, so they're rolling pretty good. It's a good test for us and I think we can definitely compete with the teams up there and be those teams up there."

Both teams will be missing key players. Jets forwards Scheifele and Gabriel Vilardi remain sidelined with lower-body injuries. Leafs winger Tyler Bertuzzi is away with his wife, who is expecting the couple's second child.

 

ContentId(1.2067077): Leafs, Jets ready to renew 'spicy' Canadian Division rivalry

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Wednesday's showdown will also be a clash of styles. The Jets are allowing a league-low 2.29 goals per game. The Leafs, meanwhile, are tied for fifth in goals per game (3.49) and employ the league's leading goal scorer in Auston Matthews

"They got some of the most dynamic offensive players in the world and a bunch of guys who are having great years," said defenceman Josh Morrissey. "You try not to give them any free offence off turnovers, off mistakes defensively, and try to make them earn the offence that they'll get."

"We have nothing but respect for the high-end talent they have over there," said Bowness. "It's all about on-ice awareness and about playing defensively, playing without the puck the right way."

After allowing three goals or fewer in 34 straight games, the Jets saw that streak snapped on Monday when they fell 4-1 in Boston. The Bruins final goal came into an empty net. 

"We pride ourselves on being a stingy defensive team and that's a big reason why we're in the position we are right now," said Morrissey. "Definitely want to get back on track and two big games coming up here. It will be a big test to do that. They got a high-powered offensive team, so we're going to have to bring our best systems and defensive game to the table these next two night." 

Bowness believes poor breakouts cost his team against the Bruins. 

"If we can get back to getting the puck out a lot quicker and using our speed and establishing the forecheck then we're starting to play Winnipeg Jet hockey," the coach said. 

What will be the biggest challenge for the Leafs? 

"Getting to their net," said Keefe. "Getting access to the net. Getting access to the zone. They also do a lot of really good things on offence too. They're good with the puck and they put pressure on you in your own zone. It's just two teams that are going to be fighting for possession and territory through the game."

The Leafs have dropped five of seven since Jan. 10 and are scoring three goals per game in that stretch. 

"It's going to take a lot of effort in our own zone to get the puck out and then to establish offence," said Knies. "We got to be simple and play below the goal line and not keep the puck on our stick too long, you know, keep moving and get to open space and that will create opportunities for us." 

 

ContentId(1.2067111): Leafs Ice Chips: Looking to get to the net without Bertuzzi

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It'd be nice if the power play chips in. The Leafs are just 1-for-15 in the past seven games. 

The Jets are even worse lately going 1-for-19 in their last five games. Defenceman Neal Pionk was elevated to the top unit at the morning skate. 

"Get the puck and shoot it," Bowness instructed. "He's got a good one-timer. We need to put more pucks down by that net, it's as simple as that. We got to try things. Listen, we're not going into this game, 'There's No. 1 and there's No. 2,' we're looking for a No. 1, so whatever unit is going to go out there and make things happen, that will be the No. 1 unit tonight."

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Perfetti expects to have between 45 and 50 family and friends in attendance as he plays his second NHL game in Toronto. 

"Second time doing it and it's just as cool as last year," the Whitby, Ont., native said. "You dream of playing in this building, in this league, so to get the opportunity is pretty cool."

It's even cooler because he gets to play against his childhood idol. Perfetti wears No. 91 because that's what John Tavares wears. 

"I wanted to be like him," the 22-year-old said. "It's pretty cool now to be able to play against him. He's just so smart. He just is always in the right spot. His skill speaks for itself and his goal-scoring ability, but it all stems from how smart he is. He's always in the right position. His hockey sense is off the charts, so that's something I really appreciate."

 

ContentId(1.2067075): Perfetti pumped for homecoming game, chance to face idol Tavares

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After four games apart, Knies was reunited with Matthews and Mitch Marner on Sunday and made the most of the opportunity. 

"I felt good," he said. "I played my game a lot better. I played to my strengths, playing simple, playing hard and I thought I got a lot of pucks back for us and created a lot of opportunities."

"He played really well on the forecheck," said Matthews. "He's a big, heavy body, disrupting plays, you know, fighting for pucks, getting pucks back and letting all three of us go to work in the O-zone."

After spending a couple seasons at the University of Minnesota where he topped out at 40 games, Knies is adjusting to life in the professional ranks. 

"He's handled it well," said Matthews. "It's a grind and you just gotta embrace it and he's a guy who comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face. He works hard and whether things are going good for him or bad, he tends to have the same attitude, which just shows his maturity."

How did the body feel coming off the week-long trip out West?

"Pretty sore," Knies acknowledged, "but you can kind of take care of yourself. We had a day there to practice and just use our facilities and use all the resources we have here to get your body regenerated and that's what I did, so I feel great again." 

 

ContentId(1.2067040): Knies gets back up to speed beside Matthews, Marner

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Robertson scored the game-winning goal on Sunday and will remain in the lineup against the Jets. It will be his first time playing consecutive games this month. 

"The more and more games you play, the more and more rhythm you get," he said. "I'm trying to get that rhythm and do everything I can to make the most of my opportunity."

Robertson has scored in four of his last six games but is struggling to lock down a regular spot in the lineup. Keefe is looking to see how natural centre Pontus Holmberg can play on the wing, which has limited Robertson's opportunity of late. 

"He has handled it very well, which is important," said Keefe. "I have talked to him about that. You need to keep a good attitude and continue to work. You need to wait for your opportunities, and when your opportunity comes, you need to show that the time without playing hasn't impacted your game and you haven't lost your rhythm or your ability to come in and make an impact. Once that happens, especially when you are a player without waiver protection, you end up in the American League, so you are playing and coming up when you are ready. He has handled himself very well here. When we put him in, he has shown that he gives us a bit of a spark."

How is Robertson staying focused? 

"Two things," he said. "Preparation first. I prepare for games even if I'm not playing. Actually, I don't know if I'm playing until the day of, so you gotta prepare anyways. Another thing is to not overthink it. I was happy with my game, the games I played, and so not to overthink things."

With Bertuzzi out, Holmberg will slot in on the second line with Tavares and William Nylander.

Robertson will remain on the third line with Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok.  

"It was not just his goal," said Keefe. "His overall game the other night, to me, warrants him getting another game tonight. Bertuzzi's situation aside, he was going to remain in tonight and look to build on his game from the other day."

 

ContentId(1.2067041): Robertson earns a chance to get in a rhythm with Leafs

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Joseph Woll took part in Toronto's optional skate as he continues to work his way back from a high-ankle sprain sustained on Dec. 7. 

"He is progressing very well," said Keefe. "He is going to remain here and work through our bye week and All-Star break. He will remain on the ice. The plan or the hope is that once we return, he will be closer to or ready to join our practices. I would say that his coming back to play after the All-Star break would not be imminent. It would more be progressing with the practices, testing it, and progressing from there. He is still quite a ways away."

Toronto's first practice after the All-Star break will be on Feb. 4. 

Ilya Samsonov will get the start on Wednesday. He won both games against the Jets last season. 

Laurent Brossoit gets the call for the Jets. 

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Projected Leafs lineup for Wednesday's game: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner 
Holmberg - Tavares - Nylander 
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok 
McMann - Kampf - Gregor

Rielly - Brodie 
McCabe - Liljegren 
Benoit - Timmins 

Samsonov starts 
Jones

Lines at Wednesday's Jets skate: 

Connor - Namestnikov - Ehlers
Perfetti - Toninato - Iafallo
Niederreiter - Lowry - Appleton
Barron - Kupari - Jonsson-Fjällby
Scheifele

Morrissey - DeMelo
Dillon - Pionk
Samberg - Schmidt
Chisholm - Stanley

Brossoit starts 
Hellebuyck