WINNIPEG – The Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets entered Tuesday's action looking up the Eastern Conference standings -- and feeling the heat of nearby Stanley Cup Playoff contenders lurking behind.
The Jets made some breathing room for themselves, scoring three second-period goals to fuel a 4-1 win at MTS Centre and dealing Buffalo's playoff aspirations a setback.
The Jets started the game sitting 10th in the East, two points behind the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals. The Sabres trailed the Jets by two points, owning a game in hand.
The Jets' win helped them keep pace with the Capitals, who took a 3-2 road decision from the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday. The Capitals own a game in hand on the Jets.
"It's nice to get something going here," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd, whose first goal in 13 games late in the second period built upon earlier goals from Kyle Wellwood and Aaron Gagnon to give the Jets a 3-0 second-intermission lead. "We obviously know we have to get on a little run here, and [there is] no better place than to do it here in this building and get the fans on our side and revved up for a good run here."
Winnipeg also slipped past the New Jersey Devils into ninth place and matched the eighth-place New York Rangers at 42 points. The Jets survived the loss of defenseman Tobias Enstrom after he departed the game in the first period and did not return. Jets coach Claude Noel said afterward that Enstrom, who missed 19 games with a shoulder injury earlier in the season, is "day-to-day."
Buffalo, meanwhile, remains four points out of a playoff spot and drifting in 11th place.
"This was a huge game for us coming here, and it's that much more disappointing," Buffalo defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said.
Winnipeg, in the midst of a six-game homestand, won its second consecutive game after a five-game losing streak had knocked the Jets out of the Southeast lead and nearly crushed their playoff chances.
"There's obviously a better feeling in the room here," Ladd said. "I think that's the main thing, to get that feeling of winning hockey games and feeling good about ourselves in this room – winning games is the ultimate cure to that. I think we like what we've done in the last two games, but there's a long way to go here, and we've got to keep our foot on the pedal."
Buffalo's three-game winning streak ended. The Sabres' home date with Montreal on Thursday begins a stretch of six home games over their final eight in their bid to make one last push for a postseason berth.
"I thought we were okay," Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston said. "There were too many times there, especially in the second, where we gave up too much easy offense. It just wasn't good enough."
Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec made his League-leading 37th appearance and stopped 29 shots. Kevin Porter's third-period goal ended Pavelec's shutout bid. The Jets have limited the Sabres to one goal in each of the teams' past five meetings.
"I thought that Pavelec was good when he had to be," Noel said. "I thought he really held his ground. He gives you that comfort."
Buffalo's Ryan Miller finished with 26 saves and held the game Sabres in the game early. Rolston and his club expected a fast start from the Jets, who dominated early. Winnipeg took the game's first six shots and pinned down Buffalo through the opening 10 minutes. But the Sabres recovered and carried the play for much of the rest of the first period.
The evening began with promise after the Sabres had regained leading scorer Thomas Vanek, who returned to the Sabres' lineup after missing four games because of an upper-body injury,
But the trio of Vanek, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford all went minus-four, as the Sabres' hold on the game loosened early in the second period. Wellwood's fourth goal gave the Jets a 1-0 second-period lead. Gagnon followed with his first NHL goal five minutes later to put the Jets up 2-0.
"I could have had two, three [goals]," Vanek said, "and every mistake I made was in the back of [our] net."
Noel liked his club's first period, and Winnipeg's work finally paid off. Wellwood opened the scoring 4:54 into the second period with his second goal in two games after managing two in his first 31. Ehrhoff blocked Evander Kane's right-side shot, sending the puck skidding into the slot, where Wellwood converted before Miller could scramble into position.
Gagnon's goal made it 2-0 when he snuck into the slot and one-timed Dustin Byfuglien's right-side pass low past Miller at 10:04. Ladd and Bryan Little combined on the Jets' third goal. Little slipped a pass through the Buffalo defense, and Ladd finished the play with a backhand-forehand move.
Gagnon impressed Noel in his third game since a recall from the St. John's IceCaps of the American Hockey League, where he had earned monthly league honors in March after registering nine goals and nine assists in 11 games.
"He's a guy that I liked last season in the short time that we had him," Noel said of Gagnon. "He's a good, responsible player, strong on faceoffs and has proven to be the same. He's a guy that is really easy to play. I don't really worry about who he is up against."
With 22 seconds to play in the period, Ladd put the Sabres in a three-goal hole with his first since March 14, ending a 13-game run. After the Jets killed off a Sabres' power play late in the third period, Blake Wheeler put it away with an empty-netter. The Ladd-Little-Wheeler trio have combined for 10 points over the past two games for the Jets, who have scored all seven of their goals in the second period in those games.
Buffalo's defensive lapses left Ehrhoff frustrated.
"It's the same story," Ehrhoff said. "We talk about it a lot, and we talk about it before the game. Then we go out there, and we don't execute right and it ends up in the back of our net. It's always very frustrating, especially given the meaning of the game."