BUFFALO — You didn’t think the Winnipeg Jets were going to do it the easy way, did you?
Despite holding the majority of the play, the Jets had to dig deep to gut out a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night before a crowd of 19,070 at First Niagara Center.
This will qualify as a “total-team effort” as Blake Wheeler put it, even though Jets head coach Claude Noel basically made it a three-line hockey game during the third period — choosing to sit down Alex Burmistrov, Kyle Wellwood and Chris Thorburn for the most part.
That meant that Jim Slater got a bump up onto a line with Nik Antropov and Evander Kane and James Wright jumped up with Olli Jokinen and Eric Tangradi.
Kane took a late penalty and missed the net as Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was on the bench in favour of an extra attacker, but the errant shot didn’t come back to haunt the Jets.
Neither did a second-period turnover courtesy of captain Andrew Ladd, who took full responsibility for the miscue after the game when I asked him about it. Good sign of leadership in what was otherwise a solid game for Ladd, Wheeler and Bryan Little, who scored the games first goal one minute in after Wright did some good work behind the Sabres’ net and Kane found him in the slot with a backhand pass.
It’s funny how the game can work sometimes. At the morning skate, Little told me about the importance of scoring first and building a lead and sure enough, he delivered the goal himself.
The entire top line was flying and Wheeler had what was easily his best game of the season. He was skating like he did during his hot stretch last season and while he wasn’t rewarded with any points, all he was worried about was the fact the Jets won the game. If he can continue to use his speed, drive the net and find his teammates, there’s little doubt he will get back to producing points with regularity.
Burmistrov has been playing well of late, but against the Sabres, he was a little too careless with the puck (though NHL.com didn’t have him down for any giveaways, they didn’t have Ladd down for his either, so it’s not a fool-proof system).
Burmistrov had only two shifts in the third for one minute and 40 seconds of ice, Wellwood had two shifts for 1:19 and Thorburn had one shift for 46 seconds.
Slater had a strong game and deserved the extra ice time and through two periods, the entire fourth line was doing a nice job providing energy and cycling the puck down low. After a season-low 5:22 and change the other night against the Boston Bruins, Slater took 29 shifts for 16:28 on Tuesday, easily smashing his season-high of 12:53 he had in the 1-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. He also won 54% of his draws.
But this win wasn’t all about the forwards. The defence corps was excellent, doing a great job of keeping the NHLs leading scorer Thomas Vanek off the board. The Jets blocked a lot of shots (19 in total), with five of them knocked down by Ron Hainsey, the most courageous of which saw him take one of the butt when Tyler Myers wound up from close range.
Grant Clitsome did a nice job jumping back into the lineup and he was paired with Dustin Byfuglien, finishing with 29 shifts for 20 minutes and six seconds of ice time (and a plus-1 rating) after being a healthy scratch for three consecutive games. Solid showing for the stay-at-home blue-liner with a heavy shot.
Hainsey added an assist while playing nearly 23 minutes, making a great read on a pass that was supposed to get to Sabres captain Jason Pominville, but the Jets’ blue-liner intercepted it and found Andrew Ladd, who scored his team-leading eighth of the campaign.
Ladd made a lapse in judgment late in the second period to give the Sabres some life when he tried to feed a pass to Byfuglien but turned into an odd-man rush for Buffalo that ended with Pominville’s shot beating Ondrej Pavelec high to the glove side.
But the Jets were determined not to let the mistake cost them the game and they regrouped in the third period and were able to bring home their sixth win of the season, jumping up to 11th in the Eastern Conference standings with 13 points.
Pavelec was back in form on Tuesday, making plenty of important stops as the resembled the guy who gave the Jets a chance to win on many nights last season. Ryan Miller made sure the Sabres stayed in the game as well, but Pavelec was full marks in what was his 200th NHL game.
“No, I don’t think it’s a number to celebrate I am happy for every game and every game I play I try to play as hard as I can and help the team to win. It’s just a number and, like I said, I am happy for every win,” said Pavelec.
The Jets were 0-for-1 with the power play, unveiling a new look with Dustin Byfuglien up front as the net presence, while Jokinen moved back to the left point.
But the much-maligned penalty-killing unit stepped up big-time, going 3-for-3, killing off two minors in the third period, including one to Kane with less than four minutes to go in regulation.
“Yeah, it’s huge. You know, I think our penalty kill has been actually really good for the last five or six games. We just had a couple game stretch where they scored a lot, so we’ve kind of turned that around lately and it’s been a big thing and its going to be a big thing going forward,” said Ladd.
The Jets are taking a day off Wednesday, as mandated by the new collective bargaining agreement, but we managed to gather a few leftovers from the dressing room and will provide a complete package to tee up Thursday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.