TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe’s first training camp as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs lasted just 10 days and included exactly zero exhibition games.
Asked to explain by far his team’s best stretch of the abbreviated 2020-21 season, the answer was a simple.
“More time together, more games, more meetings, more discussions,” Keefe said. “We’ve definitely seen progress in a lot of areas.”
Some of those were certainly front and centre Monday.
John Tavares and Mitch Marner scored in a dominant second period — one that saw Toronto outshoot Winnipeg 22-5 — as the Maple Leafs defeated the Jets 3-1.
Frederik Andersen made 27 saves for Toronto (3-1-0) in the first of 10 meetings between the North Division rivals before Marner added his second goal of the night into an empty net with 22.6 seconds left.
“We were good at keeping them to the outside,” Andersen said. “Then as they turn the puck over or after a shot, I thought we were good at breaking out and pushing it down to their end and making them defend and making them a little bit tired.”
Kyle Connor replied for Winnipeg (1-1-0), which got 35 stops from Connor Hellebuyck — the only reason the game was close — inside an empty Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 protocols.
The Jets were minus sniper Patrik Laine, who sat out with an upper-body injury and is listed as day-to-day.
But that did little to explain their miserable middle frame.
“You get slow against anybody in this league, you’re going to have a problem,” Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said. “Slow leads to bigger gaps and they certainly exploited those.”
Following an even first that saw both teams force good saves from Hellebuyck and Andersen, the ice tilted heavily in the second.
The Leafs got the game’s first goal at 5:28 at the tail end of a power play when Hellebuyck kicked Jake Muzzin’s point shot out to William Nylander, who quickly fed Tavares in the slot to bury his third goal and sixth point of the season.
Toronto, which dressed 11 forwards and seven defencemen, led 13-0 on the shot clock after that goal, and 19-1 midway through the period with the Jets appearing to be asleep at the switch. Winnipeg looked to get some momentum on a man advantage later in the period, but Hellebuyck was forced to stop two short-handed Ilya Mikheyev chances.
The Leafs were finally rewarded a second time with 1:21 left when Auston Matthews carried the puck into the offensive zone before finding Justin Holl. His one-timer hit the post behind Hellebucyk, and Marner was there to poke home his second of the year.
Toronto appeared primed to take a feel-good 2-0 lead into the intermission, but got running around in the defensive zone, with Connor providing Winnipeg some life by snapping his second past Andersen with under a minute remaining.
The Leafs finished the period with an eye-popping 36-11 edge in shot attempts, but only led by the slimmest of margins on the scoreboard.
“You don’t like it when it’s happening,” Keefe said. “Now you’re through the game and you get the win, you look back through it. We’re trying to get better here as a team. It’s moments like that, that are going to allow us to reflect and talk about it as a team and see where we can better.
“We’ll take our lessons.”
Winnipeg got an early third-period power play, but Andersen was there at every turn — including a great stop on Mark Scheifele that would have had the fans chanting “Freddie! Freddie!” in a normal season.
Andersen didn’t dress for Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Senators in Ottawa, instead putting in a day of work followed by a night of rest in the wake of two shaky starts to open the schedule.
“Freddie’s one of the best in the league,” Tavares said. “We’ve got so much faith in him. We were a much more connected, solid team over the last couple games.
“We’ve got many areas to clean up, but we know the big saves he’s going to make. We only want to make it easier and better for him.”
The Jets continued to push and got a power play with 5:15 left in regulation when Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly cleared the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game infraction, but Andersen and the penalty killers did the job before Marner bagged the empty netter.
“We’ve got to be ready to play tight-knit games,” Marner said. “We’ve got to make sure we keep doing the right things, playing the right way.”
The Leafs rebounded from Friday’s disappointing 5-3 loss to the Senators in Ottawa with that triumph Saturday, while Winnipeg opened its season with Thursday’s 4-3 overtime victory at home against the Calgary Flames.
Next up for the Jets are three straight games against Ottawa — Tuesday and Thursday in the nation’s capital before the teams travel to Winnipeg for a Saturday tilt — as part of a gruelling stretch of six contests in nine nights that began Monday.
The Leafs host the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday and Friday before embarking on a four-game road trip through Alberta beginning Sunday.
“We leave the (Monday night) feeling good about the effort,” Keefe said. “At the same time, I’m fairly confident we’re going to have a number of things to discuss where we can continue to get better.
“That’s very positive. We’re not where we can be.”
Notes: Toronto announced before the game rookie winger Nick Robertson will miss at least four weeks with a knee injury, which forced the team to put both third-string goalie Aaron Dell and veteran forward Jason Spezza on waivers for salary cap purposes. Dell was claimed by the New Jersey Devils, while Spezza made it through and dressed against Winnipeg. … Mikko Lehtonen, who led all KHL defencemen in scoring last season, made his NHL debut for Toronto… Winnipeg blue-liner Logan Stanley made his NHL debut with Dylan DeMelo (personal) and Tucker Poolman (COVID-19 list) sidelined.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press