WINNIPEG, Manitoba − Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers played a combined 928 games in their careers for the Buffalo Sabres until the blockbuster February trade that sent them to the Winnipeg Jets. Sunday in MTS Centre, they get their first chance to meet their former team.
“It’s always weird I’m sure for guys to play former teams but we’re focused on winning,” Stafford told Winnipeg reporters after the Jets’ practice here Saturday morning. “We need the points and it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing against. We’re in that urgent mode right now. We’re more focused on a good game.”
The Jets entered Saturday night’s games four points out of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot and are coming off a 2-2-1 road trip. Sunday’s game is the first in a stretch that will see Winnipeg play nine of its next 10 games at home; the Jets are 11-5-1 in MTS Centre but just 8-14-2 on the road.
“Our main focus coming in is not worrying about the outside noise that’s going on with this game,” Myers said. “It’s focusing on the way we’ve been playing of late. It’s an opportunity for sure. I don’t think it’s any secret we love playing in front of these fans. To play in this building you can tell it gives us a lot of energy.”
Stafford is tied for the Jets’ team lead in goals with 14 and has 22 points in 41 games. Myers has five goals, 13 assists and a plus-5 rating in 41 games.
Stafford, Myers and Joel Armia came to Winnipeg in the deal along with a first-round draft pick and top Buffalo prospect Brendan Lemieux. The Sabres got Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and prospect goaltender Jason Kasdorf, in his final season of college hockey at RPI.
“I’m not in any position to judge the winning or losing of a trade but I can speak for Tyler probably that we’re extremely happy how things have gone in Winnipeg so far,” Stafford said. “We’re not really comparing anything but we were lucky to come here and be part of a playoff run. This year we’re in the mix again. We can’t ask for more than that.”
“For me and a lot of us, it’s just a normal game but you know there might some extra emotions for a lot of guys,” said Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. “It’s guys I played with. I like to play against guys you know and you played with. It will be exciting.”
Ristolainen was less excited by the third-period interference penalty he was nailed with Friday night in Chicago while moving on Blackhawks puck carrier Artemi Panarin. Replays showed Ristolainen never touched Panarin, and the Russian rookie tried to draw a penalty with a huge swan dive that has gone viral on the Internet. He was nailed with an embellishment call on the play.
“I’m not shocked but I know I didn’t do anything too,” Ristolainen said. “I went after the puck and that was it. It doesn’t matter if I start yelling at anybody. It was a penalty but I didn’t do anything wrong. It was the wrong call but you live with it.”
The ensuing 4-on-4 situation didn’t lead to a goal but Ristolainen was unhappy with his play on Phillip Danault’s game-winner for the Blackhawks with 4:59 to play. Ristolainen was caught backing into the Buffalo zone and shading a step toward the middle of the ice as Danault sped through the circle and beat goalie Chad Johnson high on the short side.
“I have to make a better gap with the forward and stick to the puck more so he can’t shoot it like that,” Ristolainen said.
The Sabres have been flat-out awful here since the Jets returned to the NHL in 2011. Buffalo has dropped all five of its visits to the MTS Centre − failing to score more than one goal in any of the games. The Jets have outscored the Sabres, 19-4, in those contests, including last season’s 5-1 victory.
The Sabres, in fact, are looking for their first road win against the Jets/Thrashers franchise since Oct. 20, 2010 in Atlanta and their first win in Winnipeg since Feb. 10, 1993.
Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons missed practice Saturday due to what coach Dan Bylsma termed a maintenance day, and Bylsma said he should be fine to play Sunday.
Winnipeg center Mark Schiefele, who had two goals when Buffalo visited last season, will be a game-decision due to a lower-body injury suffered late in Thursday’s game in Dallas. He is third on the team with 12 goals.