Jets fall back below .500 after losing to Sabres

- December 18th, 2013

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Some folks are wondering if Tuesday’s night’s 4-2 loss to the last-place Buffalo Sabres might represent rock-bottom for the Winnipeg Jets.

It’s a fair question, but the answer isn’t a simple one.

For the strides the Jets managed to make during a 4-2 road trip against Eastern Conference opponents, a winless (0-2-1) three-game homestand against Central Division opponents was a big step backward.

A 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday was important for the Jets’ collective psyche, but as captain Andrew Ladd noted in the dressing room afterward when asked about the big-picture significance, “it’s only one game.”

After watching Tuesday’s game, which featured four unanswered goals by the Sabres — including three in the third period — you know exactly why Ladd said what he did.

These are the Jets, inconsistent to a fault.

Prospective contenders on nights when they use their speed, stick to their defensive structure and manage the puck well, but pretenders on the nights when any of those areas slip or there are a few too many passengers.

Questions about finding a way to break the cycle will continue until the Jets can find a way to answer them on the ice with improved, consistent play.

Through 36 games, the Jets are 15-16-5 and still searching for traction.

Which brings us back to Tuesday’s game, the one that saw goalie Ondrej Pavelec hold the fort by making 19 saves in the opening period as the Jets were badly outshot (19-7) and outplayed by a hungry Sabres team that looked nothing like a squad that’s the front-runner to earn the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

But the Jets started the second period strong and seemed to turn the tide on a pair of wrist-shot goals from Mark Scheifele, whose quick release seemed to catch Sabres goalie Ryan Miller off-guard.

But the Sabres got back into the game on a rebound goal from Steve Ott at 10:16 and then got momentum back on their side with a goal from Marcus Foligno 50 seconds into the third, helping propel Buffalo to its first win of the season when trailing after 40 minutes.

“Their goal right off the bat was a big heartbreaker and we didn’t respond,” said Scheifele. “That’s not the way we wanted to play, for sure.”

After that, the Jets didn’t mount much in terms of a push-back.

I asked Dustin Byfuglien what the Sabres did to get momentum on their side in the third period?

“They scored. It’s simple,” said Byfuglien.

Scheifele seems to have put his offensive struggles behind him and while he says his confidence never wavered, he’s showing more creativity in the offensive zone and is beginning to grow into the player the Jets’ envisioned when they chose him seventh overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

With six goals and 15 points in 36 games, there’s plenty of growth left to come and obviously Scheifele won’t fully turn the corner until he starts putting up similar numbers against some of the bigger teams in the Western Conference but his play is certainly trending in the right direction.

After delivering two goals in 36 seconds in the opening minutes of the second period, folks on Twitter were projecting that Scheifele might become the first member of the 2.0 Jets to record a hat trick but that distinction will have to wait.

Scheifele’s new left-winger, the same left-winger he started the season with, Evander Kane, wasn’t quite as dominant as he was in Monday’s win but he still managed six shots on goal and two hits in 21 minutes and 16 seconds of ice time.

Reuniting Kane and Scheifele was a smart idea from head coach Claude Noel and if that line, with Michael Frolik on the right side, continues to find chemistry, the Jets will be a tougher team to play against.

With James Wright out with the flu and Matt Halischuk on the shelf for 6-yo-8 weeks with a forearm injury, the Jets used Kane and Frolik together on the penalty kill. I’ve been saying for a while now that Frolik, who was a key cog with the Chicago Blackhawks PK, needs to play more while shorthanded and it will be interesting to see if that duo sticks together.

Speaking of the Jets’ penalty kill, they did a nice job killing off a 29-second 5-on-3 disadvantage in the first period, but then gave up the game-winning goal on Matt Moulson’s deflection goal early in the third.

That marker came with Jets centre Eric O’Dell sitting in the box for hooking and I asked him what happened on the play that led to the hooking minor.

“(The puck) kind of rolled on my stick and I thought he was going to get a clear wraparound, so I kind of hooked him and didn’t let him get it,” said O’Dell, who had only four minutes and 39 seconds of ice time. “Unfortunately, they scored on the power play.”

O’Dell was also on the ice when the Jets’ fourth line gave up a goal to the Sabres’ fourth line at 13:38 of the third period.

The Jets’ fourth line of O’Dell, Eric Tangradi and John Albert (who moved to left wing) had only seven shifts in the game.

After a couple strong ones in the first and second period, things seemed to tail off for them.

O’Dell, who leads the St. John’s IceCaps in scoring, waited a while for this opportunity and while he was disappointed in the end result, he was still enthusiastic about the overall experience.

“It was a tough loss,” said O’Dell, who was recalled by the Jets on Tuesday morning and flew in from his hometown of Ottawa, since the IceCaps had just started their Christmas break. “It was pretty fun out there, I felt good on the ice. You kind of get nervous out there and you try to hold the nerves back. It was my first game out there. We were rolling the lines at the start there and our line was buzzing pretty well. When we were out there, we worked hard.”

I asked Jets head coach Claude Noel what he thought about O’Dell’s debut?

“You know what, I thought that line gave us some energy,” said Noel. “They got stuck in our zone in the second period for a length of time, but I thought, for the most part, they skated well, gave us good energy and gave us pressure on the forecheck. They did pretty good on the cycle.

“But in the third period, (O’Dell) took a penalty and it ends up in our net and we’re down 3-2. How do you analyze that? That’s what happens some nights.”

The Jets actually reassigned Albert (who had one goal in eight NHL games) to the IceCaps on Thursday afternoon, meaning that O’Dell is assured of getting another look on Friday.

Even with Wright expected to be back from his flu bug, the Jets only have 12 available forwards, since Anthony Peluso must serve the final game of his suspension on Friday.

There’s nothing official from the Jets yet, but the Albert move also provides the roster spot needed to activate Zach Bogosian (groin) from the injured-reserve list, so he’s must at least be a possibility for Friday.

For the Sabres, I thought Drew Stafford had a pretty strong game, utilizing his speed while chipping in an assist, a couple of hits and dropping the gloves with Grant Clitsome (though he was only given a roughing minor).

The Jets and Sabres were rumoured to be discussing a Stafford for Alex Burmistrov deal at the NHL trade deadline last season but I doubt those talks would get reignited.

Stafford is in the third year of a four-year, $16 million dollar deal that carries an average annual value of $4 million and has just two goals and 11 points in 34 games.

I also liked Matt Moulson’s game. I’m curious to see if the Sabres move the pending UFA prior to the trade deadline. He’ll certainly generate plenty of interest and is going to have plenty of suitors come July 1 if the team that picks him up isn’t able to get an extension in place before that time.

Should the Jets be taking a swing at Moulson in free agency? Discuss amongst yourselves.

There were plenty of folks on social media wanting to pin the blame on Pavelec for Tuesday’s loss, but there are a lot of other areas to point to first.

Pavelec’s sharp first period was the only reason the Jets stayed in this game in the first place.

As has been a prevalent theme throughout the Jets three seasons here, Pavelec’s goals against average is going up and the save percentage is going down during this personal stretch of five consecutive losses, but to gloss over the Jets poor play in the D-zone is a mistake.

But for whatever reason, the Jets seem to be playing better in front of backup Al Montoya right now and coupled with the fact Pavelec has lost five consecutive starts, that’s why I would start Montoya in net against the Florida Panthers on Friday at MTS Centre.

Sun columnist Paul Friesen will be supplying the bulk of the coverage in Thursday and Friday’s papers. I’ll be back on Friday to help tee up the Jets game against the Panthers before hitting the road for the final two games before the Christmas break, on Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks and Monday against the Edmonton Oilers.

Categories: Hockey

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1 comment

  1. vadeux says:

    yes, moulson, or erat…drop a couple of our fourth liners and add a million or so times 2 contracts and we should get over that 500 hump.
    we need skill that works not just work before skill.

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