Record: 52 – 20 – 10
BUFFALO — The Winnipeg Jets will go with little-used Steve Mason as the last line of defence tonight when they face the struggling Buffalo Sabres.
Mason hasn't started in goal for Winnipeg since the New York Islanders dumped the visiting Jets 5-2 on Dec. 23. Since that time, Connor Hellebuyck has gone 5-0-1 in six starts.
Signed as a free agent in July to become the NHL club's No.1 netminder, Mason is just 2-6-1 in nine starts, with a 3.47 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. He hasn't started consecutive games since the first two contests of the 2017-18 season, both resulting in losses.
But he was bound to return to the crease this week as the club (25-11-7) kicks off a three-game road trip tonight against Buffalo (10-23-9) and has stops in Chicago Friday and St. Paul, Minn., Saturday.
Head coach Paul Maurice said the club needs a productive Mason during a hectic run to the post-season, adding the veteran needs game action to get into a rhythm.
"It's a tougher January with the way the games are laid out and it's a tougher February, too, with a real run of home games and not a lot of them back to back. We will need him to go in," Maurice said following the game-day morning skate at KeyBank Center.
"He's had a bunch of good days of work. We went three (games) in five for us, so it's good for Helly to get a break."
It's possible Mason could play again during the back-to-backs this weekend, but Maurice said there's also a chance Hellebuyck could start against the Blackhawks and Wild.
Mason has handled his unforeseen role as a backup like a pro, Maurice said.
"He's worked hard every day. It's not easy. It's made easier, to be honest, (because) he's a smart man, he watches the games so he knows Connor's earned every start he's been given," said Maurice. "He's handled it right."
Winnipeg is coming off a pair of weekend victories on home ice and is soaring, going 7-1-2 in its last 10 outings to seize the lead in Central Division — two points up with two games in hand on the St. Louis Blues.
The Jets are also second in the Western Conference, trailing the Vegas Golden Knights by three points.
Buffalo, meanwhile, is locked in the Eastern Conference basement with the second-worst record in the league. Only the Arizona Coyotes are worse, but just by three points.
Still, the Jets had no easy time with the Atlantic Division squad last Friday, hanging on for a 4-3 triumph.
Winnipeg left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers said a better performance will be required to get past a desperate club in its own rink tonight.
"We have to go out there and play better than we did last time and make sure we get two points," he said. "They're not an easy team to play against. No team in this league is, so we're prepared, we're ready and excited."
Forwards Adam Lowry (upper body), Brandon Tanev (lower body) and Mark Scheifele (upper body) are still out with injuries, so rookie Jack Roslovic, Marko Dano and Shawn Matthias will play again tonight.
Tanev joined the team at the tail end of the morning skate today wearing a yellow non-contact jersey.
Blake Wheeler, centring the top line with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, had an assist Sunday to extend his point streak to six games (5G, 4A). The Winnipeg captain is the team's offensive leader (14G, 36A) and is seventh in the NHL in points (50).
Laine, who saw limited ice time in the third period against the Sharks, is stuck on 18 goals and has gone seven games without a tally but has six helpers during that span.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).