WINNIPEG – A trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not guaranteed for the Buffalo Sabres or Winnipeg Jets, but they gave the sold-out MTS Centre a playoff-worthy effort.
The Jets took a 3-1 win against a stubborn Buffalo (30-28-8) club before another crowd that jammed the cozy rink in downtown Winnipeg.
"I thought that the game had tremendous pace," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "It was fast game for us at ice level. It was a really good game. It was a well-played game with a lot of will."
In taking the nasty, physical contest, Winnipeg (32-27-8) denied the Sabres, who had been unbeaten in their past eight games (6-0-2), an opportunity to venture into the Eastern Conference's top-eight group for the first time since Dec. 19 and moved three points ahead of the ninth-place Washington Capitals.
"It was awesome," said Jets forward Chris Thorburn of a full-throated Winnipeg crowd already in playoff mode. "It gets louder and louder. These fans are behind us, and we're taking them along with us for the ride. The guys were just hungry. We know how important it was."
Still in pursuit of home-ice advantage in the opening round of the postseason, the Jets pulled within two points of the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead. Winnipeg is also four points behind the seventh-place Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference race. The Jets wrapped up a season-high eight-game stay in Winnipeg in which they went 5-1-2 before they begin a two-game trek to Western Canada later this week.
Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler won the game for the Jets with a breakaway goal 8:02 into the third period that split a 1-1 lead. Bryan Little spun a bouncing puck from deep inside the Winnipeg zone that sliced the Buffalo defense and reached Wheeler at center ice. The Jets' leading scorer broke loose toward Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and snapped a glove-side shot under the crossbar.
"We made a big mistake in the third, and it was a pretty tight game," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "To give Wheeler a breakaway at that time of the game was bad judgment on our part by our defense. We had one guy joining, and [Wheeler] slipped in behind our other defenseman."
The Sabres wrapped up their five-game road trip with a 3-1-1 mark, but Ruff took little solace in the Sabres' productive week on the road that featured wins over the likes of San Jose and Vancouver.
"We knew that they would probably be a fresher team," Ruff said. "It's disappointing to have it 1-1 after almost 50 minutes and make the mistake that we made. We could have been in a lot better position if we at least got a point tonight, and that is the part that stings."
"I didn't talk about the road trip," Ruff replied when asked about his post-game message to his club. "I talked about how we let a point slip away. We don't have that luxury."
With the points lost to the Jets as Buffalo's three-game win streak ended, the Sabres remain stuck in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, mired in a logjam in which they trail the eighth-place Jets by four points.
"It was a hard-fought game," said Miller, who stopped 28 of 31shots. "Both teams understood the position they're in. Unfortunately, we broke in the third period."
Little, who assisted on all three Winnipeg goals, helped seal the victory when he delivered another long pass to Thorburn at center ice. Thorburn drove around Buffalo's Robyn Regehr before steering the puck past Miller from in close at 10:54.
"The speed to get around the defenseman … that was Pavel Datsyuk right there," Wheeler joked. "That's pretty special. He's going to enjoy his night, for sure."
The rest of Winnipeg's offense came from captain Andrew Ladd, whose first-period goal provided the Jets with a 1-0 lead that they nursed deep into the second period. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec continued his strong net play with a 23-save effort, yielding Buffalo's only goal to Corey Tropp.
The Jets outscored buffalo and Florida over the past two games by a 7-0 margin in the third period and have reversed the late-game breakdowns that hampered them for much of the season.
"At the start of the season," Little said, "that's something we struggled with, closing teams out and especially playing with a lead. It seems like the last month or so, we've really learned how play with the lead, and we've learned how to play a good third period and finish teams off."
The clubs staged a fast-paced opening period and traded several chances. Miller stopped Winnipeg's Evander Kane after the Jets' leading goal scorer picked off Jordan Leopold's outlet pass and broke in on net.
Winnipeg brought Buffalo's nine-game run of scoring first to an end in the second half of the period. Ladd solved Miller when he crashed the Buffalo net, worked his way around a Buffalo defender and converted Little's rebound at 13:45 to put the Jets up, 1-0.
Buffalo's fourth line answered in the final minute of the second period. Brad Boyes threw a puck on net from the left side that Pavelec stopped. But Tropp collected the rebound and tied the game at 1-1 when he pushed aside Winnipeg defenseman Ron Hainsey and jammed the puck in the net with 35.8 seconds left.
The Sabres make a one-game layover at home to meet Carolina before heading back on the road to face Boston and Ottawa as they attempt to remain a player in the Eastern Conference chase.
"We could have been in the playoff picture with a game in hand," Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. "It didn't turn out that way, and we made it a little bit harder on ourselves. We've just got to deal with that, get back to winning games, go back home and focus on the next one."
Winnipeg faces a Thursday date in Vancouver with the Canucks, but Noel figures that the eight-game homestand has helped the Jets to iron out the deficiencies that plagued them well into February.
"We've asked our players to leave everything on the ice, and I think that they've done a really good job of pouring everything that they can into the game," he said. "To me, it's evident, the passion that they're playing with, and we're getting rewarded for that."
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