Hellebuyck stellar, Wheeler scores shootout winner as Jets edge Sabres 3-2

It’s tough to make a playoff push when you can’t win three games in a row.

But for the first time since early January and just the second time since mid-November, the Winnipeg Jets have a three-game win streak thanks to a 3-2 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday night.

The Jets had to play without Kyle Connor and Nate Schmidt as both Americans were placed in COVID protocol, and as has too often been the case for the Jets of late, the team slept through the first 20 minutes, bailed out by the strong play of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

The former Vezina winner kept a clean sheet until the 14:39 mark when Zemgus Girgensons banged one past Hellebuyck from the slot after his initial shot was blocked.

Buffalo held a 13-5 advantage in shots on goal after the opening frame, but early in the second the road team began to look alive.

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Pierre-Luc Dubois got the puck near the crease and made a great move to get Sabres keeper Craig Anderson out of position, and as Dubois slid the puck toward the empty net for his 100th career goal, Jets captain Blake Wheeler inadvertently caught a piece of it with his blade to steal the goal.

But just over four minutes later, the Sabres regained the lead. After Wheeler turned the puck over in the neutral zone, Buffalo set up a great chance that was stopped by Hellebuyck but the rebound bounced to the stick of Girgensons, who deposited it into the empty cage to restore the advantage.

It appeared that Buffalo would take the lead into the final frame but with just 21 seconds to go in the period, the Jets rushed up the ice. A Nikolaj Ehlers pass grazed off the stick of a Sabres defender right to Mason Appleton, who wired it past Anderson to even the score. It was Appleton’s first goal since the Jets re-acquired the winger at the trade deadline.

READ MORE: Connor, Schmidt placed in NHL’s COVID-19 protocol

Neither side could break the deadlock in the third period, though Winnipeg’s Evgeny Svechnikov had a glorious chance right before the buzzer that he whistled wide of the net. That ensured that, for a third straight game, the Jets were going to overtime.

The extra frame got off to a chaotic start when Dubois nailed the post in the opening seconds, which sprung Tage Thompson the other way. Wheeler made a great backcheck on the play to snuff it out but seconds later, Thompson got free again. He was denied by Hellebuyck but Dubois was called for a slashing penalty.

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The Sabres had some great chances on the power play but Hellebuyck stood tall to get it back to even strength. Zach Sanford had a really good opportunity to score in the final seconds of overtime but the puck rolled off his stick as he got in close on Anderson.

Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry praised the penalty kill.

“They sacrificed themselves and they stayed patient,” Lowry said. “We got a couple of saves when we needed them and at this time of the year, that’s what you need to win hockey games, you need guys to give up their bodies and we got some big blocks and we were fortunate to get through it.”

Buffalo went first in the shootout, with Hellebuyck denying Thompson. The Jets responded with Dubois, who beat Anderson under the blocker to take the early advantage.

That advantage did not last long as Viktor Olafsson beat Hellebuyck five-hole but Mark Scheifele ripped one high over Anderson’s blocker to restore the lead.

Alex Tuch needed to score to keep the game alive, and he did, setting up Wheeler with the game on his stick. The captain came in slow and just about came to a complete stop before he put it past Anderson for the winner.

“Not a great first period, we were still kind of a tired team,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “We had played five games in eight days or something like that, so hopefully we can get back a little bit of jump in our step tomorrow.”

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With the win, the Jets are two points back of the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference, held by the Vegas Golden Knights, who won in Seattle Wednesday night.

All three wins in this streak for the Jets have come in extra-time. The last time the Jets won three in a row was when they beat St. Louis in December, had two weeks off, then beat Vegas and Arizona after the extended Christmas break.

Hellebuyck made 35 saves for the win, securing a much-needed two points as they try to stay alive in the wild card chase. Anderson stopped 25 shots in defeat.

Winnipeg will get right back at it in Toronto Thursday night against the Leafs. Puck drop is just after 6 p.m. with CJOB’s pre-game coverage starting at 4 p.m.

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