TORONTO — Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice joked following Saturday's morning skate his team should be well-versed in defending.
The high-flying Maple Leafs had outshot the Jets by a combined 77-50 and held a 142-83 edge in attempts on goal through the first two meetings of their three-game set against reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck — largely the reason the visitors had secured three of a possible four points earlier in the week.
The rubber match was an entirely different story.
Adam Lowry scored the winner in the third period and added an assist as Winnipeg stifled Toronto's attack in a grinding 5-2 victory over the North Division leaders.
"We didn't get ahead of ourselves," Maurice said of what changed with his group. "We just stayed in the battle and stayed in the fight."
Winnipeg (17-8-2) surrendered the middle of the ice to Toronto (19-8-2) for long stretches of Tuesday's 4-3 victory at Scotiabank Arena in front of the lights-out Hellebuyck before the Leafs pretty much repeated the exercise in securing a 4-3 overtime triumph two nights later.
"We were a little ahead of the game in our first two," Maurice added. "We were really effective at being comfortable in our own end (Saturday). They're such a powerful, offensive team, and they have a unique way of controlling the puck that you're going to spend some time in your end regardless of how well you play.
"We were there as five (defenders) and committed to it."
Mark Scheifele and Mason Appleton, also with a goal and an assist each, Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny provided the rest of the offence for Winnipeg, which now sits just four points back of the Leafs in the standings with two games in hand. Laurent Brossoit, who started with Hellebuyck getting a well-earned rest, stopped 20 shots.
"That was awesome," Scheifele said of the overall effort. "We played really solid, a lot of close support.
"Everyone battled hard."
William Nylander and Jake Muzzin replied for Toronto, while Frederik Andersen made 27 saves as the Leafs lost in regulation for the fourth time in five outings.
"We had a real hard time stringing together two passes," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "They present unique challenges. It's as deep or the deepest forward group that we've seen in the division.
"We just didn't have a good game. We weren't sharp mentally, we weren't sharp physically."
Lowry snapped a 2-2 tie at 7:39 of the third after Andersen couldn't control a dump in at the side of his net. Appleton was quickest to the loose puck and feathered a pass through the legs of Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott for Lowry to bury his fifth of the season and first in 20 games.
"Not good enough to win," Andersen said of his performance. "The third goal, I'd like to have back. That one hurt us."
The 31-year-old, who continues to deal with lower-body injury that forced him out of the lineup earlier in the schedule, is now 1-3-0 with an .858 save percentage in his last four starts.
"I'm managing it the best I can," he said of the ailment. "It's not something I want to talk too much about.
"I just want to focus on getting better."
Winnipeg stretched its lead to 4-2 on the power play with 5:26 left in regulation when Ehlers, who had two goals and an assist Thursday, ripped his 14th past Andersen.
The Jets then got a 5-on-3 man advantage after Zach Hyman was whistled for interference with Andersen on the bench for an extra attacker before a seething Keefe was assessed another penalty for arguing the initial call.
Scheifele promptly put things out of reach with 3:28 left in regulation when he scored his 12th — and first in eight games — upstairs for Winnipeg, which will play Toronto six more times over the next six weeks.
"Very happy with the way this series went," Scheifele said. "But every game is a measuring stick. You can't just rest on your laurels and think about just this game and this series."
"We're obviously very aware of the standings — where we are, where they are," Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "It'll be interesting down the stretch."
Lowry said neutralizing Toronto's stars, including NHL goal leader Auston Matthews, came down to the details.
"It starts with the puck management," he said. "We know with the forward group they have over there, they're going to get some zone time. It's about keeping them to the outside, but when you get a chance to jump or when you get a chance to exit the zone, you take advantage."
Winnipeg went up 1-0 at 1:41 of the second when Lowry's pass in front went in off a streaking Appleton's skate for his eighth, but the Leafs registered their first short-handed goal of the campaign when Muzzin joined the rush and fired his second upstairs at 5:03.
Brossoit, who allowed a goal that was called back for a hand pass early in the first, didn't look great on Nylander's go-ahead effort 2:09 later when the winger faked pass on a 2-on-1 before firing his 12th off the backup netminder's stick.
But the Jets made it 2-2 with 3:26 left in the period when Stastny tipped his ninth past Andersen — and they didn't look back from there.
"You always talk about adjustments," Maurice said of Winnipeg's response following the first two games of the series. "This is all player-driven. It wasn't a coaching win tonight. The players really beared down on some of the basic parts of the game.
"That's where we won it."
Notes: The Leafs have a quick turnaround with a game against the Senators in Ottawa on Sunday, while the Jets welcome the Montreal Canadiens for a pair beginning Monday. ... Toronto forward Joe Thornton played the 1,653rd regular-season game of his career to pass Mark Recchi and into sole possession of sixth on the NHL's all-time list. ... Muzzin's goal was also his first in 20 games. ... Winnipeg defenceman Logan Stanley picked up his first NHL point with the second assist on Stastny's equalizer in the second.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press