The Buffalo Sabres said all the right things heading into their first meaningless game. They wanted to play spoiler, show pride and fight to keep jobs.
In the back of their minds, though, they knew Monday’s meeting with Winnipeg meant little. It showed early. The Jets, who needed to win to stay in the playoff race, roared past nearly every member of the home team.
Jhonas Enroth did his best to win the game – and his teammates eventually joined in – but the Sabres succumbed to Winnipeg, 2-1, in relatively barren First Niagara Center.
“They were hungry and they’re playing for playoffs, and obviously we’re out,” Sabres forward Marcus Foligno said. “There’s different attitudes there. They played well.”
So did Enroth. He made 37 saves, including 28 in the opening two periods. He needed one more stop for the Sabres to earn an upset in front of an announced crowd of 18,654 that appeared several thousand short of that.
“I know they’re going to put a lot of shots on net, and I expected the game to be like this,” Enroth said.
The Jets broke a 1-1 tie with 7:36 to play. James Wright dropped a pass to Antti Miettinen above the right faceoff circle, and his shot through traffic glanced off Enroth and went under his arm.
“I got a couple guys right in front of me there,” Enroth said, “so I never really saw it until it hit my chest or whatever it hit and bounced in.”
The Sabres took 11 of their 25 shots in the final period, but they couldn’t get the equalizer and fell to 3-4 in the last seven outings.
“There was some pushback,” Foligno said of the Sabres’ effort. “It took awhile. I just think they got tired from shooting so much.”
Winnipeg pulled within one point of the seventh-place New York Rangers and the eighth-place Ottawa Senators by improving to 6-0-1 in the last seven games.
Eager to stay in the race, the Jets took eight of the opening 10 shots and 12 of 15 en route to a 15-4 first period advantage.
Enroth, starting in place of Ryan Miller for the third time in five games, stopped the first 21 shots he faced, including a penalty shot by Evander Kane.
The Jets finally beat him when Aaron Gagnon, alone at the top of the crease, deflected a pass with 7:52 gone in the second.
The Sabres’ power play struck for the fourth straight game four minutes later.
Just 19 seconds after Blake Wheeler trucked to the penalty box, Thomas Vanek scored his 18th goal, including his ninth on the power play.
It was all the Sabres could muster against Ondrej Pavelec.
“They had that mentality of wanting to be a playoff team still, and their hopes were alive,” Sabres left wing Steve Ott said. “For us, in the back of our mind it’s dwelling on us that we’re not a playoff team. That’s probably the difference in mentality-wise. Pride-wise, you still have to go out there and battle your [butt] off.”
Every appearance means something to Enroth, who sat for more than a month this season.
He returned to the ice March 7, and since then he’s gone 4-2-1 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in nine appearances. In his seven starts, he’s 4-1-1 with a 1.80 and .953.
There was no word on who will be in net tonight when the Sabres play in Pittsburgh.
The game was originally scheduled for last Saturday, but the manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers pushed the meeting back because the Penguins and Bruins also had their schedule altered over the weekend.
“I was just trying to look at the games I’m starting, and recently all the games I’ve been starting I’ve been playing pretty well,” Enroth said.
“I want to play more games and I want to be a bigger part of the team, so I’m trying to be sharp and do good every game I get.”
Jets 2, Sabres 1
SLAP SHOTS: Jets pull within one of point of playoff spot, division lead as Miettinen scores winner with 7:36 left. ... Enroth starts in place of Miller for third time in five games, makes XX saves. ... Vanek scores on power play, which has found net in four straight games.
FAST FACT: Sabres goaltenders have stopped 38 of the 58 penalty shots they’ve faced, giving the team a career save percentage of .655.
NEXT GAME: At Pittsburgh Penguins, 7:30 tonight in Consol Energy Center.