You would have figured the well-rested Winnipeg Jets would have had no problem with a Buffalo Sabres team that had one win in their last 12 games.
Instead, the Jets looked slow, disinterested and fell apart defensively in a 4-2 loss at home Tuesday night to start off a three-game homestand.
Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin scored twice as the Sabres ended a seven-game losing streak by handing the Jets a second straight defeat.
“We were slow at the start, then real good for about 15-20 minutes, and then slow, and never could get back up to speed,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “We got to play faster than that. We got to play harder than that, more engaged than that. Regardless of our set of circumstances, we need to be better than that.”
The Jets were playing without their captain after Blake Wheeler suffered a knee injury in their last contest. The Jets went 4-0-1 in five games without Wheeler earlier this season after he was placed in COVID protocols.
It’s the third time this season the Jets have lost to a lower-end club on home ice after previous losses to the Arizona Coyotes and New York Islanders at the Canada Life Centre.
“We feel sh**ty every time you lose a game,” said Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers. “And in this league it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. Every team can win the game. And it felt sh**ty against Carolina. And it feels sh**ty again today. But there’s a new game, in what, two days.”
With Wheeler out of the lineup, Andrew Copp started the game at right wing on the top line alongside Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. But the trio wouldn’t last, getting broken up in the third period. Copp has been typically used at left wing.
“I thought Andrew had a tough time over on the right side,” said Maurice.
The Jets were caught completely flat-footed on the Sabres’ second goal as Anders Bjork was left all alone in front of the Jets goal to beat Hellebuyck.
“We’re getting antsy to make a play, right, and try and do something and maybe help somebody else out,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt. “On the second goal, you leave a guy in front. It’s just tough. Connor (Hellebuyck) can’t make all those saves.
“It’s 100 per cent on us to get ready for the game, and be prepared, and have the giddy-up and the jump to go out and play the whole game.”
The Jets outshot the Sabres 36-27.
Buffalo got on the board first at the 7:14 mark of the opening period thanks to their power play. Dahlin walked into the Jets zone, faced no resistance skating into the slot, and ripped a shot bar-down over the shoulder of Hellebuyck.
The Jets found the equalizer less than three minutes later. A careless Sabres turnover in their own end found its way to Josh Morrissey at the blue line, who found Pierre-Luc Dubois alone in front of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Dubois made no mistake for his 14th of the season.
After a long stretch of sleepy play in the second, Buffalo regained the lead when Winnipeg’s defensive zone coverage completely fell apart, leading to Anders Bjork finding himself with the puck all alone in front of Hellebuyck. His sixth of the season gave the visitors a 2-1 lead that lasted 66 seconds.
The Jets second line poured on the pressure immediately after the Bjork goal, leading to a Ehlers one-timer off a Dubois feed to even the score.
It looked like the game would be tied going into the third but with just 38.4 seconds left in the second, Dahlin’s point shot appeared to deflect off a body in front of Hellebuyck and in for his second of the night.
Just five seconds into the third, Winnipeg native and former Jets forward Cody Eakin took a high-sticking penalty, giving the Jets their third power play of the night. But like the first two, they were unable to generate much pressure and failed to score.
Scheifele did hit the post early on the PP chance, but otherwise Winnipeg only got one shot in the two minutes, just like they did on their first two opportunities.
In the ensuing minutes, each team would miss the net on partial breakaways as the score stayed 3-2 in Buffalo’s favour.
Around the midway point of the period, Maurice shuffled the lines in search of some offence, looking to find the right combination with Wheeler out with a knee injury. Ehlers joined Scheifele and Andrew Copp on the top line, moving Kyle Connor to the second line with Dubois and Paul Stastny.
Instead, it was Buffalo who built on their lead when they won a faceoff in their own end and quickly turned it into a 2-on-1. Jeff Skinner was given space to walk in on Hellebuyck and beat the Jets’ goalie to make it 4-2. Both Dubois and Morrissey got caught in the Sabres’ zone on the play.
Winnipeg’s brutal penalty kill managed to clear Schmidt’s high sticking penalty late in the third, but Winnipeg didn’t have enough time or mojo to mount a rally with a chorus of boos reigning down as the final horn sounded.
Luukkonen made 34 saves for his first career NHL win in just his 4th appearance, while Hellebuyck stopped 23 shots in defeat.
Jets defenceman Neal Pionk played over 20 minutes in his first game back in the lineup. He missed the previous three games between a suspension and a concussion.
The Jets are now off until Friday when they host the Washington Capitals.
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