Matt Hunwick's fourth game of the season will be remembered by his biggest mistake. The Buffalo Sabres' 33-year-old defenseman committed a neutral-zone turnover that pinned him and his teammates in their own end late in the third period.
The Winnipeg Jets capitalized when Blake Wheeler scored the go-ahead goal with 3:55 remaining in regulation, and they held on to beat the Sabres, 3-1, Sunday afternoon in KeyBank Center.
Though the loss prevented Buffalo (27-21-6) from winning back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 11-13, Hunwick helped the Sabres have a second consecutive strong defensive performance.
"He was very steady," Sabres coach Phil Housley said of Hunwick. "His gaps were good. He was good in the defensive zone. He was strong on the puck. I liked the way he was passing the puck on the outlet. He looked like his normal self out there: very steady."
Hunwick was an unexpected addition to the Sabres' lineup because Zach Bogosian, who played 22 minutes, 39 seconds in a 3-1 win over Detroit on Saturday, is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. That presented a predicament for Housley since Bogosian is one of only two right-handed defensemen on the roster.
Jake McCabe, who is left-handed, was already playing on right side, and Hunwick, another lefty, had played only three games all season. Bogosian also is among the Sabres' top penalty-killers and averages the second-most ice time among the team's defensemen at 21:38.
Yet, hours before puck drop Sunday, Housley expressed confidence in Hunwick rather than detailing what Bogosian's absence could mean for a team that had allowed four or more goals in eight of its previous 11 games.
Paired with Rasmus Dahlin, Hunwick responded by helping the Sabres hold the Jets to 29 shots on goal, though he was on the ice for 12 shot attempts for and 19 against.
"We did a pretty good job for the majority of the game in terms of our structure in the D-zone," Hunwick said. "Obviously, a very good team, tough on the forecheck. They turn pucks over. They made it difficult on us, but I thought for the majority of the game, we played pretty well."
Hunwick, who was acquired from Pittsburgh along with Conor Sheary in June, did not begin skating with the Sabres until December because of a neck injury suffered during an offseason workout. He played consecutive games after making his season debut in Boston on Dec. 16.
Hunwick has played only twice in 20 games since, despite playing well defensively in a 5-4 win in Columbus on Jan. 29. Though Hunwick played on the right side for 14:35 Sunday against Winnipeg, he was on the ice for less than four minutes in the second period because the Sabres had four power plays.
On one hand, he fared well without the puck, but his rust showed while carrying it.
With the score tied late in the third period, Hunwick turned the puck over in the neutral zone when he, Dahlin and Kyle Okposo needed a line change. The Jets charged into the offensive zone and capitalized when Mark Scheifele's pick gave Josh Morrissey enough room to find Wheeler open in front of the net for a 2-1 lead.
Hunwick and Dahlin were caught on the same side of the net, leaving no one to cover Wheeler in the slot. That shift lasted 1:43 for Hunwick and Dahlin, and 1:55 for Okposo.
"We didn’t get it in at the red line," Hunwick said of the go-ahead goal. "I thought the majority of that end-zone coverage we did pretty well but got beat on the wall. We just lost track of one guy. That’s what happens sometimes when you get tired, you make mental mistakes."
The Sabres' off-day Monday will allow Bogosian additional time to rest. However, they won't have a practice before Tuesday night's game against the New York Islanders. If Bogosian is unavailable, Hunwick, Nathan Beaulieu or someone in Rochester will have to step in.
Bogosian had two goals among 13 points with a minus-3 rating while playing 49 consecutive games prior to Sunday. He was limited to 18 games last season because of hip surgery. The 28-year-old also has formed an excellent pairing with Dahlin, who struggled against the Jets.
Casey Nelson, a right-handed defenseman, will complete his conditioning assignment with Rochester this week, which would potentially give the Sabres nine healthy defensemen if Bogosian is back.
Whomever fills in will likely have the benefit of playing with an elite 18-year-old defenseman.
"Obviously, he’s a high-end skill player," Hunwick said of Dahlin. "I’m calling something, he sees something different, he can make that play on his own. In regards to that, he’s very easy to play with."