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Wheeler scores, but Jets fall to Sabres

"If we want to reach our goals, it's not going to be smooth sailing." -Wheeler

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

BUFFALO - The Winnipeg Jets got bad news at 2 pm CT, then more at 4:31 pm CT.

First, they found out after the warm-up that defenceman Josh Morrissey wouldn't be able to play due to an upper-body injury.

A little over two hours later, the second dose of bad news came when the final buzzer rang in a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Kyle Okposo's second of the game 7:47 into the third proved to be the game-winner, as the Jets fell to the Sabres by a score of 2-1.

"It doesn't matter who you play now. These guys think they have a chance to get back into it. They're playing hard. Their record is better than ours in their last seven or eight," said Maurice of the Sabres, who have won five of their last six. "They're going to be just as hard as beating Washington the next night. The opponent isn't nearly as critical as the desperation we'll need from 18 skaters."

Video: POSTGAME | Paul Maurice

Blake Wheeler scored the lone goal for the Jets (32-27-5), his 21st of the season, in the loss.

But the captain felt the Jets let a number of scoring chances get away from them, despite having a total of 46 shot attempts.

"We generated quite a bit," said Wheeler, who had four shots on goal. "We just couldn't bury."

For the eighth straight contest, the Jets gave up the game's opening goal. Kyle Okposo swatted at a loose puck, the result of a blocked shot by Anthony Bitetto, and it trickled through the legs of Connor Hellebuyck 9:58 into the first period.

Some line blending late in the opening stanza paid off for the Jets, as Maurice put Jansen Harkins on the left wing with Mark Scheifele and Wheeler. With 3:23 left in the first, that trio lit the lamp. Harkins sent a perfect cross-crease pass to Wheeler, who got inside position on Jake McCabe in front of the net at the last second. 

"He was in all the right spots all over the ice. He could have had a handful of goals himself," said Wheeler. "With Scheif and I, there is a simplicity to our game so being in the right spot is big for us. He was in the right spot a lot tonight. He had a lot of great chances. On my goal, he made a big-league play."

Video: POSTGAME | Blake Wheeler

Getting the promotion to the wing with Scheifele and Wheeler was a great opportunity for Harkins. It was just over two years ago - January 3, 2018 to be exact - that Harkins was assigned to the Jacksonville IceMen of the East Coast Hockey League.

He's earned every chance he's been given and did what he could to make the most of this one, firing a career-high six shots on goal.

"Two of the best players in the world. I just tried to keep it simple, move my feet, and earn the next shift," said Harkins. "They're going to make plays out there. I just tried to move my feet and find some holes. I had a handful of chances. Frustrating that I couldn't find them there. Just doing the right things and those games are going to come. You'd like to finish for your team and help us win."

After a scoreless second, Okposo put the Sabres on top again with 12:13 to go in the third. The Sabres created an odd-man rush at the Jets blue line and Okposo kept on the two-on-one, going top corner over Hellebuyck's left shoulder to put Buffalo ahead 2-1.

"They shot two pucks and we didn't. A point-shot knuckler that bounces off a couple guys and they get the rebound, then a two-on-one that beat a pretty good goaltender with the shot," said Maurice, describing the difference in the game. "We had the same set-up a bunch of times and didn't get it to the net. I'd like to see us shoot a few more pucks."

Video: POSTGAME | Jansen Harkins

Winnipeg wasn't able to find the equalizer in the final 12 minutes and with consecutive losses on the weekend, the Jets are 7-4-1 in afternoon starts.

But there are still 18 games left on the schedule, so Wheeler knows the Jets have to move on quickly.

"We just have to get over it. We have a lot of hockey to play still. We're still in the race. We have a lot to play for," said Wheeler. "If we want to reach our goals, it's not going to be smooth sailing. We have a young team that's learning how to deal with that. We have to fight through it."

Video: POSTGAME | Cody Eakin

ICE CHIPS

Cody Eakin played 14:23 in his debut in a Jets jersey, finishing with four hits and a 55 per cent face-off percentage.

"It felt pretty good. I was a little jittery at the start, but once the pace of the game gets going, you get right into it," said Eakin, who played primarily with Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic.

"Those guys have some great speed. I think it comes down to when they're charging up the wing, make sure I have centre line drive. Have to make sure the play ends up in their zone, not in the neutral zone turning pucks over. Just simple things - speed, and let the hockey IQ take over."

As for Morrissey, Maurice hopes to have an update on the defenceman in the next couple of days.

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