WINNIPEG, Manitoba — No boos from the home side. Only rousing cheers. That’s what happens when a dominant effort produces a victory.
The fans at cozy MTS Centre create perhaps the most raucous atmosphere in the NHL and they were rewarded Tuesday night as the Winnipeg Jets toyed with the Buffalo Sabres in the second period en route to a 4-1 victory.
A roaring, chanting sellout crowd of 15,004 saw goals from Kyle Wellwood, Aaron Gagnon and Andrew Ladd create another nightmare middle stanza for the Sabres, who are minus-13 for the season in second periods. Kevin Porter scored for the Sabres at 4:53 of the the third but Blake Wheeler’s empty-net goal with 26 seconds left sent Buffalo home with its three-game winning streak a mere memory.
The Sabres remained four points out of eighth place and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but now with only eight games left. They could have pulled even with the Jets with a regulation win.
It was a particuarly tough night for Buffalo forwards Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford, all of whom posted career-worst, minus-4 ratings. Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers were both minus-3. Vanek played 19 minutes in his first game back after missing six with an upper-body injury.
The Sabres simply had too many turnovers and coverage mistakes in the defensive end and too many flubbed chances at the offensive end, especially thanks to poor passes, to survive in this one.
“It’s the same story. We talk a lot, talk about it before the game and then we go out and don’t execute right and it ends up in the back of our net,” Ehrhoff said. “That’s obviously very frustrating, especially given the meaning of the game.”
The Jets opened the scoring at 4:54 of the second as Wellwood pounded the puck into an open net past Ryan Miller after Evander Kane’s shot glanced off the skate of Ehrhoff and went right to Wellwood in the slot.
Gagnon, playing in his 31st NHL game over the last two seasons, got his first career goal at 10:04 taking a nice feed from Dustin Byfuglien in the slot and ripping a one-timer past Miller. Adam Pardy was unable to close on the passer and fellow defenseman Mark Pysyk couldn’t get to Gagnon in time.
The Sabres really fell into disaster with yet another goal in the last minute. The Jets cashed a 2-on-1 as Bryan Little feathered a great backhand pass to Ladd and the Winnipeg captain snapped a 13-game drought by carrying the puck around Miller and stuffing it home with 25.8 seconds left.
“The first one goes right off the skate to Wellwood for an empty net. Tough break,” Vanek said. “The second and third ones, I’ve got to do a better job. I knew Byfuglien was pinching on me. I thought I chipped it up on the glass, wasn’t aware where the puck was and the next thing you know, a pass in the slot for 2-0. Third one was just a 2-on-2 and bounced over my stick [at center ice] and Little goes the other way.”
On the other end, the Sabres had several odd-man rushes that failed simply because they didn’t even take shots or flubbed passes.
“Forget the creativity. Shoot the puck,” said interim coach Ron Rolston. “We had several of those where you try to make an extra pass in there and that’s the difference. At times, we want to be cute and easy and you don’t win that way.”
After Porter’s goal, the Sabres had a power play to get within a goal and Vanek had a stuffer on the edge of the crease with most of the net open but swept the puck wide and slammed his stick on the ice in disgust.
“I turn around, I’ve got the net,” Vanek said. “Puck is rolling a little bit but you’ve got to put those in. I thought I created some good chances. Should have had two or three and I end up minus-4. One of those nights where I felt good for not playing six games. Just backfired on every mistake.”
Buffalo fell to a season-killing 2-9-2 against the Southeast Division, regarded as the weakest in the NHL. The Sabres have lost all three games they’ve played at MTS since the Jets returned to the NHL last year following their move from Atlanta. And Buffalo has scored just one goal in each of the three games.
“This was a team ahead of us in the standings and there were only nine games left to put ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs,” Pardy said. “It hurts to lose this one, giving up two points to a team you’re trying to catch.”