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This article was published 10/2/2019 (195 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BUFFALO — They had gone missing in action in recent games, spending far more time fishing pucks out of their own net than celebrating goals at the other end of the rink.
So it’s safe to say Winnipeg’s talented top line picked a fine time to make a reappearance Sunday, helping the Jets escape with a much-needed 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. Captain Blake Wheeler broke a tie with just 3:55 to play, and then No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele sealed things with an empty-netter as Winnipeg snapped a three-game winless streak.
"There’s an element of confidence. Our line, we expect to be productive and we expect to make plays. There are going to be times in a long season where it doesn’t happen and bounces don’t go your way and what have you," Wheeler said in the locker room at KeyBank Center.
"We had a lot of offensive-zone time, a lot of looks and we got rewarded at the end. That’s something we can build off of."
Winnipeg fell 3-2 in overtime to San Jose Tuesday, then got walloped in back-to-back road games Thursday and Saturday by identical 5-2 scores in Montreal and Ottawa. Wheeler, Scheifele and Kyle Connor were a combined minus-14 in those past two losses. That had triggered plenty of angst among fans. And, it turns out, tested the mettle of the team inside the room as well.
"You know, it was the first time all year that we’ve really had to deal with that adversity, we’ve found a way to come back and find a way to win games. Typically, if we lose one or even two, then we win four or five straight. It was something that we obviously talked about before the game.
"This was something we haven’t gone through and we’ve got to handle it the right way. I think there’s a lot we can be proud of with how we played," Wheeler said.
"When you’ve lost three straight and you’re kind of reeling a little bit, you’re not necessarily going to come out and blow the doors off a team. These guys are fighting for a playoff spot. We did a good job of staying patient with that game, kind of doing all of the things that we preached before the game and we got rewarded."
Winnipeg improves to 35-18-3 on the year and moves two points ahead of Nashville for top spot in the Central Division. The Jets have two games in hand. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck played a huge role in the outcome Sunday, making 35 saves.
"At the beginning of the year we’ve been scoring a lot, and now we’re realizing if we want to win, we’ve got to play some shutdown defence. And I think we have had that in this locker room," said Hellebuyck, who was a one-man show in Montreal as he made 48 saves to keep the score from being an even bigger blowout.
The Jets did play a stronger game in Ottawa Saturday afternoon, generating a whopping 86 shots attempts, with 46 of them going on net. But Senators netminder Anders Nilsson stood on his head while Jets backup Laurent Brossoit struggled.
Sunday was a much different story as Hellebuyck came through when his team definitely needed a big effort.
"He looks right, he looks strong. There was some traffic there, there was some action around him, but he looked right on," said coach Paul Maurice.
The penalty kill was also outstanding. Buffalo went 0-for-5 in the game and gave up a shorthanded goal to Andrew Copp just 3:01 into the second period as the Jets opened the scoring. It came after an earlier shorthanded breakaway by Adam Lowry and a great rebound chance from Brandon Tanev.
"I think we needed to get the first one today. It was going to be important in the game. We were definitely focused on our defensive game after the last two. We knew it was kinda going to be a low-scoring game. Obviously getting that first one is huge in that type of game. Especially with all the PKs that we had," said Copp.
"It was nice to give the boys a bit of a life with all those calls going against us."
The key, said Copp, was taking advantage of a fairly aggressive Buffalo power play that can be prone to mistakes.
"I think they just come with so much speed and try to make plays at the line. So if we do get a good stick, there’s going to be that opportunity. Obviously it bounced through (defenceman Rasmus) Dahlin’s feet on my mine. I think we knew that if we had some good sticks, we’d have a chance," Copp said of his fifth goal of the year.
Winnipeg has now scored seven shorthanded goals this season.
Bryan Little set Copp up for the goal, giving him 16 points over the last 16 games. The veteran centre has been coming on strong offensively after putting up just 20 points through his first 40 games.
Buffalo captain Jack Eichel tied the game with just under eight minutes to play in the middle frame, just a few seconds after Little stepped out of the penalty box. His wrist shot beat Hellebuyck clean, giving the captain 18 goals on the year.
Both teams traded plenty of chances and momentum swings as the game wore on, until Wheeler came through in the clutch. Scheifele got the puck to defenceman Josh Morrissey, who showed great patience in hanging on to it and finding Wheeler wide open for the 12th goal of his season on the easy tap-in to beat Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton.
"It was a big shift at the end, when you should be tired. We’re a pretty powerful team on the back end of back to backs so far this year, because they had lots in the tank," said Maurice.
Wheeler then set up Scheifele with an empty-netter in the final seconds of the game, his team-leading 28th of the year.
"The tact that we took was instead of trying to put out the 5,000 fires from Montreal, we just tried to work two or three things. Focus just on that," Maurice said of his team’s mindset.
The Jets begin a three-game homestand on Tuesday night when the New York Rangers pay a visit to Bell MTS Place. The Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators will also come to town later in the week.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 6:18 PM CST: Writethru
11:07 PM: Edited