The Winnipeg Jets seemed to be toast in the playoff race after a five-game losing streak earlier this month. But they’re back in it now. Big time.
The Jets improved to 6-0-1 in their last seven games with Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres — setting the stage for a huge Southeast Division showdown tonight in Washington against the Capitals.
The Caps are 13-2-1 in their last 16 games, a stretch that started with two wins on back-to-back nights in Winnipeg on March 21-22 by a combined 10-1 score. That sliced into what had been a nine-point lead for the Jets in the division.
Washington has 52 points and the Jets have 51. It’s possible both teams could get in, as the New York Rangers and skidding Ottawa both have 52 as well and currently hold places 7-8 in the Eastern Conference.
“Tonight was the first step,” said Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd, who was named NHL First Star of the Week on Monday. “We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves. Now we’ve taken that step and we can focus on the biggest game of the year for us.
“It’s been circled on our calendar for a long time now. We wanted to put ourselves in position where it’s a meaningful game and we’ve done that, so here it is.”
“The emotion is going to be into a totally different level than today,” said defenseman Antti Miettinen, who scored the game-winner Monday with 7:36 left. “The crowd is really going to be into it.”
Winnipeg last made the playoffs in 2007, when the franchise was still in Atlanta. Folks in Manitoba haven’t seen Stanley Cup action since 1996, the final year of the original Jets franchise before it headed to Phoenix. The new Jets were 11th in the East last year in their debut season.
Miettinen’s shot from the right point leaked through Jhonas Enroth’s arm and gave the Jets their sixth straight win over Buffalo.
“I didn’t see how it got in there. I was just listening to the crowd,” he said. “It wasn’t the easiest game for us. To be able to win that is great.”
Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec made it stand up with 24 saves, including a scintillating glove stop on Thomas Vanek with about 5½ minutes left. Pavelec has a 1.00 goals-against average in his last six games against the Sabres.
“It just hit my glove,” said a smiling Pavelec. “The guys deserved my help. They played really well the whole game.”
In his first NHL game in more than a month after returning from junior, Sabres rookie Mikhail Grigorenko played 15:18. He centered Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford while getting his second-highest ice time of the year.
“I got some confidence back in juniors, and I played with confidence,” said Grigorenko, who had one shot on goal. “I was good on faceoffs (9-6), and when I’m doing good on faceoffs it gives me some more confidence. We had the puck more.”
With his national team eliminated in February from next year’s Sochi Olympics and coming off a 12th-place finish in last year’s world championships, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff has committed to play for Germany in the worlds next month in Sweden and Finland. Former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has previously been announced as the coach of Team Canada.
“I’m really excited to represent them,” Ehrhoff said of his national team. “It’s definitely not at a high right now. It’s probably at a low point. We had a very bad finish last year, very disappointing. And obviously the non-qualification for the Olympics is very frightening and very sad.”
Ehrhoff said leadership at the highest levels of the German hockey federation remains problematic and said he feels he has to represent his homeland.
“I definitely felt an obligation to do it. It’s just not right to criticize the federation of German hockey and then not show up and help to try to change things,” he said. “So I definitely felt like I needed to do it but I wanted to do it too. And I feel it can give me a positive ending to this season personally as well.”
Grigorenko replaced Patrick Kaleta, who injured a hand Friday night. Interim coach Ron Rolston would not say if Kaleta would play either of the remaining two games.