The Winnipeg Jets are heading home beaten up, but not too beaten down.
The Jets ended a seven-game road trip, their longest of the season, with a 6-5 loss in overtime to the Buffalo Sabres before a packed crowd at the First Niagara Center.
The winning goal came from Sabres forward Thomas Vanek who deflected a shot from Jason Pominville with 24 seconds left in overtime as the Jets Blake Wheeler was serving a penalty for hooking. It was Vanek’s second goal of the game.
“Two points were within our grasp,” lamented Jets head coach Claude Noel after the game.
The loss gave the Jets a 3-2-2 record on their road trip and eight points out of a possible 14. Not bad for a team that hadn’t won once on the road before leaving town Oct. 26. The two-week voyage also gave the Jets just about every experience possible in hockey -- a shutout win, two shutout losses, a shootout win, two overtime losses and a 9-8 win that left everyone shaking their heads. Overall the team is now 5-7-3 with 13 points.
There some good signs for the Jets during the trip, such as the emergence of forward Evander Kane, the play of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and two goals on Tuesday by Bryan Little, a presumed scorer who had yet to find the net coming into Buffalo. Defenceman Mark Flood has also been a surprise, getting two goals in four games after being called up from the farm team in St. John’s because of injuries to defenders Tobias Enstrom, Randy Jones.
“It’s good for us to do this on the road and end up over .500, this is okay for us,” said Noel. “We’re getting a lot out of our guys effort-wise.”
But this was the team’s third straight loss and there remain plenty of problems. After some stellar play in the previous five games Pavelec looked more ordinary Tuesday, giving up three goals in the first period on just nine shots. Two of the goals came just 11 seconds apart, including a gorgeous short-handed score by Pominville, who took a spin around pass from Paul Gaustad and fired it past Pavelec. The Jet goalie also missed a long shot from Vanek in the second period. Pavelec got better as the game went on and in the end he stopped 39 of 45 shots.
The Jets also fell back into their penchant for taking a lot of penalties, which they paid for on Tuesday. Winnipeg handed the Sabres 12 power plays, which included a two-man advantage on three occasions. Buffalo scored on four or them, including one goal late in the third period by Derek Roy to tie the game, when the Jets were down men, and the overtime winner by Vanek.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot. By spending half the time in the box you end up with a short bench, it doesn’t help you,” said Noel, who has been after his players for weeks to cut their total penalties to three per game. “We could have won, we were in a position to win it.”
Jets defenceman Mark Stuart, who got called for roughing which led to the tying goal, was bitter after the game. “We’ve got to be more disciplined,” he said. “We didn’t get a point, we lost a point.”
Coming into the game there had also been questions about Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who hadn’t done a lot to justify his $5.2-million (U.S.) annual salary. Before Tuesday, Byfuglien had just one goal and five assists for six points. That put him far off the pace to match the 20 goals and 53 points he had last season.
He showed some strength Tuesday, getting a goal on a wide-open shot in front of the Sabres net and adding one assist. But he also mishandled the puck a few times, including on a Jets' power play that led to the Sabres scoring short-handed. And he picked up two penalties including a 10-minute misconduct as the game was winding down.
Noel has stood by Byfuglien and he did so again Tuesday. “He did fine. He scored a goal. I have no problems with Byfuglien,” he said.
The Sabres also have issues, especially with goaltender Ryan Miller. He started Tuesday for the first time since last Wednesday when he was yanked in a 3-2 loss to the Flyers. He’d been on a four-game losing streak and had sat out two games last weekend watching rookie Jhonas Enroth take his place and win twice. Miller came out spitting fire Tuesday, telling reporters before the game: “I’m here to win.”
But he didn’t look much like a winner at first Tuesday, giving up three goals on just eight shots to start the game. He finished better, stopping 26 out of 31 shots. But he seems far off his form earlier this season when he won four games.
“We all know that Ryan needs to be better,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said after the game. “He’s fighting it, there’s no doubt about it.”
But Ruff said he was pleased his team fought back, despite not leading in the game until the final goal. “For me it was great to get back in that game and win it,” he said. “We showed some character in bouncing back.”
The Sabres are now 9-5-0 with 18 points.
The Jets return to Winnipeg for a game against Florida Thursday and one Saturday in Columbus. Regardless of the team’s overall record, or its performance in the last seven games, there likely won’t be many changes. “I am definitely not a big believer in trading just for the sake of trading,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said last week. “This shouldn’t be a group of guys that should have to pick up the paper each and every day and say, ‘Well, the general manager is looking for this, the general manager is looking for that.' They should just go and play the game.”
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