Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey was skating alone in the left faceoff circle by the time Buffalo Sabres winger Kyle Okposo could absorb Mark Scheifele's basketball-style pick.
Within seconds, Morrissey passed to the slot, where Jets winger Blake Wheeler one-timed the puck over the goal line for the eventual game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory over the Sabres on Sunday afternoon in KeyBank Center.
The sequence spoiled an impressive performance against a potential Stanley Cup contender, a fact that would have been a point of pride for the Sabres earlier in the season. Not anymore.
Buffalo fell to 27-21-6 and has not won back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13. Though two points separate the Sabres from the second wild-card playoff spot, neither coach Phil Housley nor his players were interested in a silver lining.
"I don't know how many times we can take the moral victory anymore," Jack Eichel, whose 18th goal of the season tied the score in the second period, lamented. "I mean, we're 55 games into the year. ... Other teams are getting points, moving up in the standings. We're not."
The Sabres controlled play for much of the afternoon, finishing with more shots on goal (36-29) and shot attempts (66-51), despite the Jets having a prolific offense. This was also a second consecutive sound defensive game by Buffalo, which played without Zach Bogosian, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck made a number of timely saves — including nine during the Sabres' five failed power plays — and the Sabres proved capable of trading chances with the NHL's best. Eichel's wrist shot from the right circle tied the score, 1-1, at 12:01 into the second period and was only his third goal in 14 games.
However, since it last won back-to-back games, Buffalo is 0-7-1 following a win and has earned only five points through five games of this seven-game home stand.
The game had a playoff feel during the third period with few scoring chances, and Okposo almost gave Buffalo the lead when he collected a pass from Zemgus Girgensons and shot on goal from below the right faceoff dot with nine minutes remaining in regulation.
Hellebuyck made the save and his teammates trapped the Sabres in the other end of the ice. Scheifele made a pick near the blue line to prevent Okposo from covering Morrissey, whose back-door pass to Wheeler resulted in a 2-1 lead with 3:55 remaining.
"It’s a tough one," Okposo, who stood silent for five seconds after being asked about the go-ahead goal, said. "They made a play when it mattered. That’s it. I thought we outplayed them for a lot of the game. They had their chances, but they made a play when it mattered."
While Okposo shouldered blame for the goal, Matt Hunwick and Rasmus Dahlin were caught on the same side of the net. Dahlin was unable to break up the pass, and no one covered Wheeler skating to the slot.
The Sabres did not threaten in the final three minutes, and Scheifele scored an empty-net goal with seven seconds remaining to help Winnipeg (35-18-3) take sole possession of first place in the Central Division.
"It stings because of the position we’re in," Housley explained. "We need points. It was tough because we win a game [Saturday], and I thought our effort or just the way we were playing wasn’t [like] tonight. We came and we charged. It was a good, solid game by us. We need to find a way to get into overtime or maybe score an overtime goal, get to the shootout. We broke there."
Buffalo made its share of mistakes, too. It allowed two shorthanded breakaways, the second of which Andrew Copp scored on to give the Jets a 1-0 lead at 3:01 into the second period.
Dahlin, skating along side Hunwick with Bogosian out, performed like an 18-year-old rookie. His decision to drop to one knee near the opposing blue line led to Copp's breakaway and his inability to keep the puck in the offensive zone gave Scheifele room on the empty-net goal.
Carter Hutton made 26 saves and has lost four of his past five starts. However, he stopped a first-period short-handed breakaway and recovered nicely from being pulled in a 7-3 to Chicago on Feb. 1.
The Sabres will host the New York Islanders, who have won nine of their last 12, Tuesday night and have won only 10 of 30 games since their 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29. Though the playoffs are two months away, the Feb. 25 trade deadline is rapidly approaching and the competition is becoming increasingly more difficult.
"It’s not going to be easy," Hutton said. "A lot of the guys in this room have never been to the playoffs and this is playoff hockey. It’s going to be tough and every night is going to be tough. It’s going to be a coin flip. … It’s a good thing to be playing meaningful games this time of year. This is a new thing for a lot of guys in here, and we just have to keep to it."