By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There was an unusual feeling in the KeyBank Center for Sunday afternoon’s hockey game: tension.
For much of the contest, the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets played an even contest. Both teams had their chances to get some goals but couldn’t quite finish plays. Both goalies played well. For February, it seemed like the game meant something.
That’s saying something in Buffalo. The Sabres are trying to move up into a playoff spot, while the Jets are one of the elite teams in the league and are on anyone’s list of Stanley Cup contenders.
“It was an intense regular season game,” Kyle Okposo said. “That’s a good team out there, and we played with them.”
The finish, then, came with a good-sized amount of dismay and frustration. Blake Wheeler’s goal with 3:55 left in the game gave the Jets the lead for good, and they added an empty-net goal to make the final score a 3-1 Winnipeg victory.
“It stings because of the position we’re in,” coach Phil Housley said. “We need points.”
Little to choose
Sometimes hockey games can come down to one good play at the end, and the Jets were the one that made that decisive play. It started with the fact that the Jets had a good-sized stretch of keeping the puck in the Buffalo zone leading up to the goal. That left some of the Sabres out on the ice for a long period of time, and chasing opponents in that situation is never good news.
“I knew I needed to bear down and get the puck out of the zone,” Okposo said. “I still felt fine. We just needed to get the puck out.”
“There are so many things that go into it,” Housley said. “In the neutral zone, we had an opportunity to get the puck down the ice. But that’s hockey.”
From there, Josh Morrissey had the puck at the left point and started to skate toward the goal. He found a little extra space and went deeper into the zone. Then he slid the puck across the slot to a waiting Blake Wheeler, who only had to redirect the puck to score the winner.
“That’s a good lineup there,” goalie Carter Hutton said. “They pinned us in the zone, and it ends up in the back of the net.”
There was never much time to relax in a game that featured no two-goal leads until the final seven seconds. Andrew Copp got the Jets on the scoreboard with a short-handed goal early in the second period. Winnipeg had a couple of short-handed breakaways while killing penalties.
“We got out of our structure,” Housley said. “We tried to do too much on our own.”
However, Jack Eichel answered exactly nine minutes later. Eichel’s score didn’t count in the power-play stats, since a Winnipeg penalty had expired four seconds before the tally. But it essentially came with the man-advantage. After that, the Sabres certainly had moments where the go-ahead goal was possible. But, they are still waiting for it.
“We had some chances,” Hutton said. “I thought we were seeing the puck. He (Connor Hellebuyck) is a pretty big goalie. You have to get to the net and get rebounds and other chances. He’s really good on the first shot.”
Still looking up
A single loss at this stage of the season isn’t a killer concerning playoff hopes, of course. They are still only a couple of points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh. But the loss came with a little baggage.
The team now has a 27-21-7 record, meaning it has 27 wins and 28 losses. The Sabres are again one game under .500 in that sense, tying a low that has been hit several times this season. Buffalo also missed out on a chance to win two games in a row. That still hasn’t happened since Dec. 11 and 13. And the Sabres haven’t won two straight in regulation since October. That’s more like “running in place” than “turning up the pressure.”
The team will need to string some wins together at some point in order to reach the playoffs. This seven-game homestand seemed like a good chance to do exactly that. But five games into it, the Sabres have gone 2-2-1 with games left against the smoking Islanders and the struggling Rangers.
A second straight win against the leaders of the Central Division would have been a nice antidote to some of those feelings. But they didn’t get it. We’ll see if that frustration is taken out on the Islanders on Tuesday.
“I don’t know how many times we can take the moral victories anymore,” Eichel concluded. “I mean, we’re 55 games into the year. How many times can we say, ‘Oh, we played well but we didn’t get any points?’ Other teams are getting points, moving up the standings, and we’re not. I think the moral victories are a thing of the past.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)