The Buffalo Sabres will have 27 more regular-season games to play before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, yet coach Phil Housley acknowledged the importance of Sunday’s matinee against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Sabres had not won back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13. Since then, tight wins have been followed by emotional losses. Despite playing an impressive game in KeyBank Center, consistency continued to elude them.
Winger Blake Wheeler scored with 3:55 remaining in regulation and the Winnipeg Jets held on to beat the Sabres, 3-1. Buffalo, now 27-21-7, missed an opportunity to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and dropped to 2-2-1 during this seven-game homestand.
Jets winger Andrew Copp converted the second time the team was shorthanded to break a scoreless tie, and Wheeler converted with a one-timer on a pass from defenseman Josh Morrissey. Mark Scheifele added an empty-net goal with six seconds left in the third period.
Carter Hutton made 26 saves in his fourth start in 11 games for the Sabres, who had 36 shots on goal. Jack Eichel’s 18th goal of the season tied the score in the second period, but Buffalo failed to convert on five power-play chances.
The Jets are 36-18-3 and took sole possession of first place in the Central Division.
Fast first: The Sabres were mostly impressive in the first period. They had more shots on goal (14-11) and shot attempts (25-15), while generating more scoring chances (11-2). Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck helped kill two penalties, yet his most impressive sequence came at even strength when he made back-to-back saves on Tage Thompson.
11-0: The Jets improved to 11-0 this season when tied after two periods, while the Sabres are 8-5-2.
Shorthanded: Winnipeg nearly scored a shorthanded goal in the first period when Adam Lowry was sprung for a breakaway. However, Hutton made a glove save and stopped Brandon Tanev's rebound shot that followed.
Hutton was not as lucky on the second shorthanded breakaway. A puck bounced past Rasmus Dahlin near the Sabres' offensive blue line, allowing Copp to skate alone on a breakaway and he beat Hutton high glove for a 1-0 lead at 3:01 into the second period. It was the third shorthanded goal allowed by the Sabres this season.
Captain Jack: Moments after failing to score on a fourth power play, the Sabres broke through when Eichel's shot from the right circle went into the net to tie the score, 1-1, at 12:01 into the second period. It was Eichel's third goal in 14 games. He is five points off his career high with 27 regular-season games to play.
Back-to-back: This was the Sabres' 11th of 16 sets of back-to-back games this season. Entering the game, they were 5-3-2 in the second games of back-to-backs this season.
Lineup: Defenseman Zach Bogosian did not play and is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Matt Hunwick replaced him in the lineup, while Nathan Beaulieu and C.J. Smith were healthy scratches. Hunwick skated with Dahlin on the second defensive pairing. Dmitry Kulikov, Nic Petan and Sami Niku were the Jets' scratches.
Next: The Sabres are scheduled to be off Monday and will hold a morning skate Tuesday in preparation for a game that night against the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center.