As if things weren't already tough enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who take a five-game losing streak into Thursday night's North Division showdown with the Winnipeg Jets in Manitoba, there's this bit of news to ponder ahead of the start of that two-game series: Winnipeg is about to get stronger.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who missed the team's last six games because of a concussion, will return to the lineup. Wheeler will do so in a familiar slot -- on the first line with familiar linemates Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.
"Those two guys are two guys I've played quite a bit with over time and they're having great individual seasons," Wheeler said. "I've just got to try to fit in and get these guys the puck and have a little bit of fun here."
Wheeler collected 10 goals and 22 assists in 39 games before being injured in a 4-3 win April 5 against Ottawa. The 34-year-old right winger could have returned for Saturday's 3-0 home loss to Edmonton, but coach Paul Maurice opted to take a cautious tack, knowing Winnipeg had a rare four-day stretch without a game before Toronto's visit.
Wheeler, who missed just six games total in his 10-plus seasons with the Jets before his concussion, agreed with Maurice's logic.
"The guys were 4-1 on the road and they were playing great," Wheeler said. "It was unnecessary, to put it quite bluntly. That's where those guys allowing me to take a step back and not just think of myself as a player and trying to get back on the ice for the team wherever I can, that was an important conversation."
Winnipeg (27-15-3, 57 points) is aiming to square the season series with the Leafs (28-13-5, 61) at four games each. The teams last met on April 15 in Toronto, where Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers each scored two goals in a 5-2 Jets win.
That was the middle loss in the Leafs' recent skid, which continued in surprising fashion after a coast-to-coast plane flight to Vancouver. Playing a Canucks team that was coming off a lengthy pause because 22 players were diagnosed with COVID-19, Toronto ate 3-2 and 6-3 defeats.
Tuesday night's setback was especially annoying for the Leafs, who led 3-2 early in the third period before collapsing. Vancouver pumped in four straight goals down the stretch, including two on slappers from fairly sharp angles in the left faceoff circle that goalie David Rittich couldn't stop.
"We did a lot of good things again," said forward John Tavares, who scored two goals. "We created opportunities, we grabbed the lead, and we have to do a better job of holding that. It happened to us last game. We have to find a way to finish."
To add another injury to insult, Toronto likely lost defenseman Zach Bogosian for multiple games after he sustained an upper-body injury midway through the second period after falling awkwardly into the boards. Coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game that Bogosian "would miss some time."
The Leafs are also without forward Zach Hyman (knee) for at least two weeks after he absorbed a knee-to-knee hit Sunday from Vancouver defenseman Alexander Edler.
--Field Level Media