WINNIPEG - Back away from the panic button, put down those sharp knives and make room on the bandwagon, Winnipeg Jets fans - the local shinny side has found its mojo again.
For one night, at least.
The Jets, coming off one of their worst efforts of the season in Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, pounded a lifeless Buffalo Sabres side 4-1 Thursday night in front of another raucous full house at the MTS Centre.
"We wanted to challenge them from the first faceoff and we dominated the first period," said Jets’ netminder Ondrej Pavelec. "We controlled most of the game, most of the time, and we spent a lot of time in their zone.
"It was a great team effort."
And so here’s a fresh, new spin on all the analysis - and hyperventilating - on the Jets’ icky start to 2012: This crew has now won two of its last three and is not only within three points of eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, but three points behind Washington and Florida for first in the Southeast Division.
Winnipeg, now 22-20-5, faces the Panthers, 21-14-10, Saturday night at the MTS Centre.
"(The Panthers) aren’t too far in front of us," captain Andrew Ladd said. "They should definitely be in our sights. Every game is huge right now and so it’s just another big one. You’re going to have games where you don’t feel like you have enough energy or things just aren't going for you, but if we have a consistent effort on a nightly basis, we’re going to be in a lot of games.
"That’s what we want in here: We want guys to show up and battle every night."
The Jets welcomed back leading scorer Blake Wheeler after he missed two games after taking a shot to the throat, and he was arguably the club’s best player against the Sabres.
But there were a number of potential three-star candidates, including Toby Enstrom, who scored his third goal in three games, Ladd, Nik Antropov (goal, assist), Kyle Wellwood (two assists), Pavelec (25 saves), Mark Stuart (four blocks, three hits) and a host of others.
The four goals, just for the record, were the most the Jets have scored since a 4-1 victory over Colorado on Dec. 27.
The power play also came to life, after flatlining with no goals in the Jets' previous five games, to connect on two of four chances - Enstrom and Tim Stapleton scored - while the penalty kill shut down the Sabres on all three of their extra-man advantages.
"There were some real good things in the game, but there were some areas of the game that really gave me grief," head coach Claude Noel said. "The way we managed the puck in the second period in our D zone... We missed some D-zone assignment. Our goaltender helped us out. We were a little bit fortunate, so we’ve got some work to do here."
The Jets not only kept pace with Toronto and Pittsburgh - both winners Thursday night - but moved six points ahead of a Sabres squad that extended their franchise-record road-losing streak to 11 games.
"It’s always great to get a win coming home from the road," Enstrom said. "To bounce back with a win like this feels good. It’s fun to score goals, but the most important thing is winning, and we’ve got some important games coming up here.
"With Buff (Dustin Byfuglien) out of the lineup, you have to take a couple more shots. We’ve been struggling a bit on the PP so I’ve been trying to get the puck on the net and score some goals."
Pre-game story by Tim Campbell
Blake Wheeler will be in but Zach Bogosian is out for the Winnipeg Jets tonight against the Buffalo Sabres.
Wheeler, the team's leading scorer with 32 points, returns to the lineup after missing two games. He was hit in the throat by a slapshot from New Jersey's Petr Sykora last Saturday night.
Bogosian is still listed as day-to-day, he said this morning, so will miss a fifth game tonight (7:30 p.m., TSN Jets, TSN 1290). His lower-body injury occurred a week ago Tuesday in Boston.
Jets coach Claude Noel said this morning Bogosian could be in for Saturday's game here against Florida.
His team, coming of a road split between Ottawa (win) and New Jersey (loss) this week, will be happy to have a key forward back tonight, Noel added.
"Wheeler creates a lot of offence; he really helps that line go with (Bryan) Little and (Evander) Kane," Noel said. "He's played big, with speed, and he's strong on the puck. He's been doing a lot of stuff for us so when you don't have him, you can really see what you don't have.
"He's playing with a lot of confidence so it's really good that he's only missed a couple of games."
Wheeler said he was very lucky the injury wasn't more serious.
"That's the biggest thing," Wheeler said after today's game-day skate at the MTS Centre. "It could have been way worse. I feel fortunate that to only miss a couple of games and to be back so soon."
Wheeler did spend a day in hospital after the incident.
"The doctors were being cautious," he said. "It's kind of a sensitive area. Now I'm 100 per cent and ready to go."
Asked to recount the episode, Wheeler remembered it clearly.
"The slapshot from the top of the circles got away from him," he said. "If it didn't hit me in the neck, it was going to hit somebody in the upper deck. It was a bang-bang play and I think I was able react just quick enough to turn my head a little.
"It just missed the jugular. It hit the one spot where it was I guess was the only good spot it could hit.
"I don't know what else you can really do except duck next time."
Bogosian looked quite fine during the morning drills today but said he needs to be right before he returns.
"I want to make sure it's good before I come back," he said. "It's feeling better. But it's still day-to-day. Should be soon. I've had a good skate the last two days.
"Skating's a big part of my game, so any time that's (limited) a little bit I'm not as effective. I'm making sure it's taking the time to heal."
Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who's been out since Christmas with a knee injury, was not on the ice with his teammates today but has been skating lightly.
The Sabres come to town tonight having lost 10 straight road games. Buffalo trails 10th-place Winnipeg by four points in the Eastern Conference standings after Wednesday night's 5-2 loss in Chicago.
"They've struggled in a few areas and we need to take advantage of those things," Noel said. "We respect their team and like their team but we're trying to win games. They would do the same to us.
"The start of the game is going to be important to us. We know that they played last night. We know what that's like."