The momentum had swung to the Buffalo Sabres at the start of the third period. And, just as the Winnipeg Jets were trying to regroup themselves, they took another blow.
A literal blow. To the head of their best player and one of the rookie stars in the National Hockey League.
Just about six minutes into the final period, after the Jets saw their 3-1 lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie in KeyBank Center Saturday afternoon, they saw Patrik Laine flat on his back.
Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe leveled the Finnish rookie in a head-on check. Laine was on the ice for several minutes. He buckled slightly as he skated off the ice with assistance and did not return to the game.
The Sabres went on for a 4-3 win and the Jets left Buffalo with the potential loss of more than just two points.
Immediately after the game, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said there was "no update," on Laine. "I don’t have a problem with the hit. They hit heads. It was a straight-on hit."
But it still took an emotional toll on the Jets.
"What would you think?" said former Sabre Drew Stafford when asked what the mood was like on the bench. "It’s our best player, arguably. So it’s not good any time you see a guy in that kind of a position on the ice with his helmet and the way he was.
"I’ve been there before," said Stafford who missed 15 games with a concussion this season from a hit in a preseason game. "It’s not a good feeling. I don’t really want to comment on the hit, it’s not my place to do that. I just hope Patty’s OK. It’s just unfortunate."
Unfortunate from a practical standpoint as well. Laine, who set up Winnipeg's first goal, entered the game as the rookie leader in scoring with 36 points and was tied with Auston Matthews in rookie goals with 21. When the Jets found themselves down, 4-3, they were missing one of their best offensive weapons.
"I mean the momentum was shifting at that point so it probably bumped in their direction a little bit more," said Jets' forward Blake Wheeler. "Especially when we’re all of a sudden down a goal and he can provide instant offense. Not having him on your bench definitely hurts."
There was an immediate response from the Jets as forward Mark Scheifele, on the ice at the time of the hit, went after McCabe and got called for a roughing penalty.
"It was a split-second thing during the game so I still haven't really gotten a good look at what happened," Scheifele said.
But Maurice didn't have a problem with the response.
Scheifele "does what I think you want him to do even if it’s clean like that," Maurice said. "It’s a reaction. It’s an emotional reaction. I’m fine with how," Scheifele "handled that."
The Jets built a 3-1 lead after two periods thanks to goals from two former Sabres – Stafford and and Joel Armia. It was the third goal of the season for Stafford and second for Armia as the Jets dominated the first two periods before the wheels came off in the third.
"They just took advantage of a couple miscues on us," Stafford said. "It was just unfortunate, especially the way that we played for a majority of the game. I definitely felt we were in control of a majority of the game and it’s just the way the ebbs and flows of this game go sometimes. ... They just took advantage of a couple mistakes and it’s just the way it goes."
Defenseman Josh Gorges was a late scratch for the Sabres, deciding after warm-ups he could not play.
Gorges left the game in Boston on Dec. 31 with a hip injury and missed Tuesday's game in New York against the Rangers. He did play Thursday in Chicago.
"Practice," Friday "was fine – I guess as fine as fine could be – and today with the 1 o’clock game and coming to the rink, he wasn’t 100 percent and wasn’t where he needed to be,"Bylsma said. "It actually killed him to not be going out there."
That put Taylor Fedun back in the lineup. He was scheduled to be a healthy scratch. Fedun was plus-1 in 10:33 of ice time with two shots and one blocked shot.
After his impressive performance, although no medal, at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, the Sabres assigned Alexander Nylander to the Rochester Americans. In seven games for Sweden, Nylander was tied for the tournament scoring lead with 12 points (five goals, seven assists). Sweden lost to Russia, 2-1, in the bronze medal game.
Nylander has 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 29 games with the Amerks in his rookie pro season.
Rasmus Ristolainen logged a career-high in ice time, playing 30 minutes and 22 seconds.
Other Sabres' statistical notes:
Ryan O'Reilly had a goal and assist, giving him 13 points in his last 14 games including four points (one goal, three assists) in two games since returning from an appendectomy that sidelined him for four games.
Sam Reinhart, who assisted on O'Reilly's goal, has nine points (two goals, seven assists) in his last nine games.
Brian Gionta is now tied for the team lead in even-strength goals with eight.