The Winnipeg Jets hit the half way mark of the NHL season on Saturday with their first win of 2012, but the team remains a long way off the objectives set by coach Claude Noel back in October.
The Jets beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in overtime Saturday at the First Niagara Center, scraping out a victory from a largely underwhelming performance. It was the second time this season these teams ended a game in extra time. Buffalo won 6-5 on Nov. 8, when Thomas Vanek scored the game winner.
On Saturday, Jet defenceman Johnny Oduya was the hero, scoring just 57 second into overtime after a sharp pass from Evander Kane. It was only Oduya's second goal of the year
"I don't get into that spot too many times," Oduya joked after the game. "I just pretty much wanted to shoot high and get a good shot up...It looked pretty good, so I'm happy."
Noel said he didn't think the shot had a chance. "That was, it kind of surprised our whole bench. We weren't sure if it hit the net or what happened there. Johnny came down and made it look like he was a sniper, up there with the peanut butter."
The win gives the Jets a record of 20-16-5 and 45 points. When the season started, Noel expected the Jets to be a playoff contender and he set a goal of reaching 95 points. The Jets would have to generate 50 points in the second half of the season to reach that objective, something hard to do given Winnipeg's difficulty winning on the road.
The Jets have proven that they can beat almost any team at the MTS Centre and they piled up 21 points in December when they had 12 home games and went 10-3-1. But the rest of the season is far less home friendly. Indeed, Winnipeg starts 2012 with 14 of 19 games on the road, a daunting task considering the team's road record is 6-10-4.
Nonetheless, Noel looked on the bright side after Saturday's win, noting that the Jets remain in the playoff hunt. "We're in a dog fight, we're over .500," he said. "So there's some things that we are doing good and we're happy to be where we are.... Halfway point of the season? We're okay, we're in the hunt."
The Jets came into Saturday's game in sorry shape, having been thrashed 7-3 in Montreal and 4-0 in Toronto.
They started out better in Buffalo, looking much stronger and generating a host of good chances early on with Kane in particular crashing hard to the Sabres goal on almost every shift. The Jets did just about everything but score in the first period, hitting the post once, misfiring on one three-on-two and nearly scoring twice while killing a penalty.
But the Sabres were more than up to the challenge as they tried to overcome some of their own challenges.
Buffalo has had a disappointing season and came into the game having lost 4-2 on Friday in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes.
That was Buffalo's seventh loss in nine games. Even more concerning for Buffalo has been the play of goalie Ryan Miller who hasn't looked good ever since suffering a concussion on Nov. 12.
Miller didn't play Saturday even though coach Lindy Ruff had indicated he planned to play the goalie hard for the duration of the season.
Ruff put Jhonas Enroth in goal instead, saying after the game that it was a scheduling decision.
To make this worse for Buffalo, the team got a scare early in the first period when Vanek got hit by a puck and struggled to get off the ice. He returned only briefly in the period but made it back for the second and third. Ruff indicated after the game that while Vanek played hurt, he should recover.
The Sabres started taking charge toward the end of the second period with a flurry of chances, helped by some woeful lapses by Jet defencemen. The Sabres got the first goal of the game on a power play when Tyler Myers planted himself in front of Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec and deflected home a pass from Jason Pominville.
The Jets got lucky as the second period wound down when Buffalo got called for two quick penalties including an odd infraction by Jordan Leopold who went off for shoving Enroth's stick back to him. Blake Wheeler scored just seconds into the two-man advantage to tie the game.
Both teams had several scoring chances near the end of the third and it looked briefly like Ville Leino had won the game for Buffalo when he poked in a lose puck with just 1:45 left in the game. But the referee had already blown his whistle indicating Pavelec had frozen the puck and the goal didn't count.
"I had it between my pads," Pavelec said afterward. "No way. No goal.
I heard the whistle."
The Sabres didn't protest much and even Pominville noted afterward that the referee probably made the right call.
Buffalo, now 18-18-5 with 41 points, has more important things to worry about anyway, although Ruff said he thought the team played better Saturday. "I thought we passed up a couple of good [chances]and we missed the net on a couple of good ones." Ruff said. "For the most part we defended a lot better than we did [Friday]"
As for the Jets, they move on to face Boston at the TD Garden on Tuesday, one of many big road games upcoming this month.
"We're not sitting here being satisfied but we've got this month of January that's going to be a big test for us," Noel said referring to the many road games this month. "We've got to come out of this thing in a good place. We want to get at least .500 for a record so it's good we won this game tonight... We're in the hunt. That's what we need to be."