By Darrin Bauming (@DarrinBauming)
WINNIPEG — The NHL playoffs are over two months away, but the Winnipeg Jets captured a mid-season must-win on Thursday night — a 4-1 victory over the reeling Buffalo Sabres in front of 15,004 at MTS Centre. It is Winnipeg’s first home-ice victory of the young calendar year, and substantial, considering their near-atrocious 7-12-4 record away from home this season.
The road-wary Sabres meanwhile, who came into the game riding 10 consecutive road losses, struggled early on as Winnipeg racked up 19 shots on Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller in the game’s opening frame.
“We did exactly what we wanted. We jumped on them right away from the first face off,” said Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec after capturing his 16th victory of the season, bringing him back to .500 (16-16-5) as a starter. “We dominated the first period and I think we controlled the game most of the time. We spent a lot of time in their zone.”
Watch post-game reaction:
The Jets, now 22-20-5, have had some serious struggles of their own as of late, capturing only their third win (second over Buffalo) in their first nine games in January.
The trouble has been producing goals — averaging less than two per game this month — but going two-for-four on the power-play on Thursday is a definite, albeit short-term remedy.
“It helps with that first (power play) unit having Wheels (Blake Wheeler) back,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd who notched his 16th goal of the season to open Thursday’s scoring. “They seem to have a lot of good chemistry (with Brian Little and Evander Kane)… and we were able to just find ways to get to the net.”
The return of Wheeler — Winnipeg’s leading scorer with 33 points in 45 games — following a scary incident on January 14 when he took a puck to the throat area has been big for the Jets, but the offensive emergence of defenceman Toby Enstrom has been even bigger.
The fifth-year veteran’s power-play marker was his fourth goal of the season and third in three games. With his team tied 1-1, the go-ahead goal proved to be the game-winner.
“It’s always fun to score goals, but most important in the end is winning,” said Enstrom. “When Buff (Dustin Byfuglien) is out of the lineup it feels like I have to take a couple more shots. We’ve been struggling a little bit on the (power play) too, so we’ve been trying to get some pucks at the net and score some goals.”
The Jets have struggled on the back end without Byfuglien who has missed significant time with a knee injury. While a timeline on his return remains an unknown, they’ve also severely missed fellow blue-liner Zach Bogosian with an undisclosed day-to-day ailment. He’s expected to return for Saturday’s huge matchup.
The pivotal game will see the Southeast Division rival Panthers come to town in the Jets’ last home game before heading out on a six-game road swing that will take them into the second week of February.
Currently 10th in the Eastern Conference, Winnipeg trails both Washington and Florida by three points for the Southeast’s top spot. A division lead would automatically put the team into third in the conference and in a very advantageous playoff spot come season’s end.
ChrisD.ca video/Darrin Bauming