Not that long ago beating the Buffalo Sabres wouldn’t have been that extraordinary for the Winnipeg Jets.
After all the Jets hammered the Sabres 4-1 the last time these teams met at the MTS Centre. But that was back on Jan. 19 when Buffalo wasn’t much of a threat and Sabres’ goalie Ryan Miller was in a funk.
Not any more. The Sabres arrived in Winnipeg Monday on a three-game winning streak and within two points of the Jets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Miller had also been reborn, posting back to back shut outs and going 6-0-1 in his last seven starts. A victory over Buffalo this time would mean something.
And the Jets managed it, putting together a dominating performance that beat the Sabres 3-1 before a raucous full-house at the MTS Centre.
The win keeps the Jets in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 72 points, three ahead of the Washington Capitals.
“I thought our guys played really hard and together,” Jets coach Claude Noel said afterward. “It was a fast game...both teams played hard.”
Indeed, both teams came out flying and kept up a furious pace well into the third. The Jets in particular looked strong, hitting just about every Sabre player who moved. Winnipeg finished the game with 36 hits compared to just 18 for Buffalo.
The Jets early efforts paid off when Andrew Ladd scored at the 13:45 mark of the first, bashinng in a rebound after a shot by Bryan Little, who assisted on all three Winnipeg goals. Ladd's goal sent the crowd raining down jeers for Miller and chanting “Silver medal”, referring to Miller’s play for team USA at the Vancouver Olympics.
The Sabres had a chance to come back early in the second with two straight power plays, but couldn’t connect. However, with just 35 seconds left in the period, Sabres’ forward Corey Tropp tied the game by banging home a rebound while Jet netminder Ondrej Pavelec sprawled on the ice.
The tie didn’t last long. Barely eight minutes in the third, Blake Wheeler took a long pass from Little after a Buffalo turnover and sprung loose for a break away. Wheeler didn’t miss, firing a high shot that easily beat Miller.
“I looked up and I saw him kind of fading back a little bit and I just kind of closed my eyes and gave it a flick,” Wheeler said afterward. “Luckily it hit the cross bar and went down.” That sent the crowd into an even bigger frenzy, cheering for Wheeler and jeering for Miller.
“To give Wheeler a breakaway at that time of the game was bad judgment on our part by our defence,” Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said afterward. “We had one guy joining, and he slipped in behind our other defenceman... It’s disappointing to have it 1-1 after almost 50 minutes and make the mistake that we made. We could have been in a lot better position if we at least got a point tonight, and that is the part that stings.”
Added Miller: “I would have liked to make a save for the boys, but I didn't have it tonight. I thought I had it set up pretty well, and it just hit the edge of my glove.”
Nearly three minutes later, Little sent another pass to Chris Thorburn who deftly got around Miller after the Sabres' goalie tried to poke the puck away.
“The speed to get around the defenceman, that was Pavel Datsyuk right there,” Wheeler said of Thorburn, referring to the Detroit Red Wings’ star.
Thorburn, who has just four goals this year, laughed and replied: “The puck just came back on my stick. It was unlucky for Miller but lucky for me.”
The game marked the end of Winnipeg’s eight-game home stand. The Jets have made the most of it going 5-1-2 and bringing the team’s overall record to 32-27-8.
But the Jets now hit the road with games against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday followed by the Calgary Flames Friday. Winnipeg then has 13 games left, of which seven are on the road where the Jets are 11-17-4 this season.
Noel said the productive home stand should give the team more confidence on the road. “Right now you’ve got to feel pretty good about where our team is at and how [the players]are thinking about themselves and how they feel about themselves,” he said. “We’ll see how we do on the road but I think it’s challenge we’re ready to take.”