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BUFFALO — Where was the determination? Where was the urgency? Where was the inclination, over the last half-period of the game, to wire a puck at a third-string goalie with exactly zero NHL victories?
The Winnipeg Jets should, metaphorically speaking, look into a mirror, ask themselves those questions and resign themselves to some tough yet obvious answers.
The passion simply wasn’t there throughout in a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday afternoon at KeyBank Center.
Mark Scheifele tested rookie goalie Jonas Johansson with 9:24 left in the third period and the visitors down a goal. That was the last time the 24-year-old Swede was forced to face rubber.
Credit the Sabres for battening down the hatches after right-winger Kyle Okposo picked the top corner on goalie Connor Hellebuyck at 7:47 of the final period. But chastise the visitors for failing to cause any duress in the late-going, with a weak forecheck, poor passing and lousy decisions in the offensive zone.
Yet, it was pretty much all glass-half-full reaction following the Jets’ second defeat in 24 hours. They fell 4-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday afternoon, showing only slightly more jump at Wells Fargo Center.
"Yeah. We generated quite a bit. We just couldn’t bury (it)," said captain Blake Wheeler. "I mean, we just got to get over it. We got a lot of hockey to play still. We’re still in the race. A lot to play for. It’s going to happen again.
"If we want to reach our goals, it’s not going to be smooth sailing. There’s going to be adversity. We’ve got a young hockey team learning how to deal with that. We just got to fight through it."
Winnipeg (32-27-5) is now 1-2 on its four-game eastern road trip and will close it out Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals.
Okposo scored both goals for Buffalo (29-25-8), while Wheeler replied for the visitors.
Josh Morrissey (upper body) was a late scratch after feeling some discomfort during the warm-up.
"It didn’t happen in warm-up, he just didn’t get through warm-up the way we wanted him to. But we didn’t come to the rink expecting it. It was truly last-minute," said head coach Paul Maurice.
The Jets can only hope history doesn’t repeat itself. The dependable Morrissey was hurt on the eve of the NHL’s trade deadline a year ago and missed the final 20 regular-season games before returning for Game 1 of a first-round playoff series with the St. Louis Blues.
The trade deadline is today at 2 p.m. CT.
Johansson finished with 25 saves, while Hellebuyck made 23 stops.
"I think that’s the way it will look. They shot two pucks into the net. One clearly bounces off a couple guys, they get the rebound. Two-on-one they beat a pretty good goaltender. We had the same setup a bunch of times and didn’t get it to the net. We’d like them to shoot a few more pucks," said Maurice.
"It doesn’t matter who you play now. (The Sabres) think they’ve got a chance to get back into it. They’re playing hard and their record is better than ours the last seven or eight, so they’re going to be just as hard to beat as Washington the next night. The opponent isn’t nearly as critical as the desperation we’ll need from 18 skaters, all of them."
After showing no visible signs of energy midway through the first period, the Jets finally discovered their legs in the final 10 minutes after some line-juggling by Maurice.
He offered a big promotion to Jansen Harkins, who left the fourth line to replaced Nikolaj Ehlers alongside Mark Scheifele and Wheeler. The move paid dividends. Harkins won a puck battle down low and fed Wheeler, who quickly slammed in his 21st goal of the season with just 3:23 left in the first period to knot the game 1-1.
Harkins has been an impressive addition since he was called up from the Manitoba Moose of the AHL just before the holiday season. Two goals and five helpers in 24 games don’t tell the entire story. He’s played bottom-six minutes but does all the little things right.
The revamped top line put in relatively spirited middle frame but wasn’t rewarded.
Harkins said chasing the game is always difficult — and the Jets have made a bad habit out of it, surrendering the game-opener in eight straight.
"Right off the start, it’s hard to be down in these games. At this point of the season, every team is fighting and playing hard, so you want to get off to a good start. Our start was better today, but we just couldn’t find a way to get it done," he said.
"Personally, I had a bunch of chances and it sucks when they don’t go your way. Those games are going to happen where they just don’t go for you. But when you are doing the right things, hopefully the game will come when they just go in. It sucks."
Anthony Bitetto replaced Morrissey in the lineup. After being a healthy scratch for five games, Bitetto immediately had some tough luck early in the first period of his return. Blue-liner Henri Jokiharju’s blast smacked him in the pants, Okposo grabbed the loose puck and buried it past goalie Connor Hellebuyck at 9:58.
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).
Updated on Sunday, February 23, 2020 at 8:20 PM CST: Writethru with quotes
11:47 PM: Edited
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