The Winnipeg Jets head into the second stage of a three-game homestand tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There’s always an added amount of attention paid when two big hockey markets meet, but this game has an even bigger storyline in that it features the top two picks in June’s NHL Draft, pinning the Leafs” No.1 overall selection, centre Auston Matthews, against Jets left-winger Patrik Laine, who went second.
The two budding stars have battled before, most recently during a preliminary-round game at the World Cup of Hockey in September, with Matthews representing the North American (under-23) team and Laine with Finland. Matthews earned the edge in that game, adding an assist on the first goal in a 4-1 win for North America. Laine was held pointless.
Laine, who will play his second straight game on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, understands the hype in facing Matthews for the first time in the NHL — the dozens of cameras and microphones in his face this morning were an obvious sign — but insists it’ll be like any other game when the puck drops at the MTS Centre just after 7 p.m.
“I’m not playing against him — it’s Toronto against Winnipeg,” the 18-year-old said after the Jets’ morning skate. “It’s obviously nice to play against him and see where we’re going as players but it’s team against team and just a normal game.”
Matthews, 19, echoed much of the same following Toronto’s workout, saying he’s not looking at the game as a comparison between him and Laine, though he understands why hockey fans and media have decided to shape it that way. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see it as an opportunity to shine when the lights are a bit brighter.
“You have to enjoy that moment but at the same time it’s another game — it’s one of 80 more games we need to play this year,” he said. “I don’t think either side is making too much of it. We came here to get two points.”
Both Laine and Matthews have had some success in their just-launched NHL careers. Matthews” debut last Wednesday featured an unprecedented, record-setting four-goal performance in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators. It was the first time in the modern era that a rookie has put four pucks in the net in his first NHL game.
The following night, Laine scored a goal and added an assist when the Jets opened their season with a comeback 5-4 OT victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Neither has registered a point since; Laine and the Jets have played three games, Matthews and the Leafs two.
“People talk about a rivalry but I don’t think like that,” Laine said. “He’s an awesome player and he’s making his career in Toronto and I’m making mine here. It’s just nice to play against him and his team and it’s a good test for our team.”
The Jets have dropped their last two games – 4-3 in Minnesota and 4-1 to Boston at home Monday, and are looking to get back to .500 tonight. The Leafs defeated the Bruins 4-1 Saturday to improve to 1-0-1, and are well-rested heading into tonight”s action.
The Jets will ice the same lineup as they did against the Bruins, opting to go back to a younger group; veterans Chris Thorburn and Mark Stuart are healthy scratches. The one change will be in goal, as Michael Hutchinson is expected to get his second start of the season; he stopped 27 of 31 shots in the loss to the Wild.
As a younger team this year, the Jets have felt some of the growing pains that come with inexperience, including dropping early leads. The Jets have scored first in all three of their games so far, but have also trailed heading into the games” third periods.
The team plays seven of its first 10 at home.
“There are not many established veteran teams in the NHL anymore, so we’re going through the same thing a lot of teams are going through, trying to figure out how everyone fits into our room and what everyone’s role is going to be,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who has a goal in each game this season and leads the team with five points. “We’re kind of learning on the fly as we go here. You want to get as many points in the bank as soon as you can, as soon as possible, because they become tougher to come by at the end of the year.”
Read more by Jeff Hamilton.
Patrik Laine – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers – Matthieu Perreault – Drew Stafford
Kyle Connor – Alexander Burmistrov – Joel Armia
Shawn Matthias – Adam Lowry – Brandon Tanev
Josh Morrissey – Dustin Byfuglien
Toby Enstrom – Tyler Myers
Ben Chiarot – Paul Postma
Toronto Maple Leafs
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitchell Marner
Milan Michalek – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Zach Hyman
Matt Martin – Peter Holland – Connor Brown
Morgan Rielly – Martin Marincin
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick – Zikita Zaitsev