Kyle Connor had two goals and one assist, while Connor Hellebuyck turned aside 25 shots en route to a 3-1 Winnipeg Jets victory over the visiting Buffalo Sabres from Bell MTS Place Tuesday evening.
The 29-29-8 Sabres rolled into Winnipeg for the club’s only game against the Jets in the 2019-20 season, but unfortunately for the visitors, they ran into a hot and bothered Winnipeg team, which just so happened to be lacing its best six defenceman for the first time this season.
In welcoming back Josh Morrissey to the lineup following a short absence, the Jets saw defensive pairs consisting of Morrissey and newly-acquired Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk and Dmitry Kulikov and Nathan Beaulieu paired alongsideTucker Poolman – a far cry from the AHL-calibre blueline that Winnipeg had been relying on off-and-on since October.
Following strong offensive and defensive zone forechecks to begin the game, Winnipeg opened the scoring as Blake Wheeler beat a Buffalo defender to a loose puck in the Sabres end, before finding Kyle Connor cross-ice, who redirected the setup play past Buffalo netminder and Thunder Bay product Carter Hutton for the first goal of the contest.
Connor collected a helper on the second Jets goal, as Winnipeg once again found the twine while down a man. With Nick Shore in the box for slashing, Andrew Copp set up a play in the offensive zone, finding Connor, who dished the puck to Tucker Poolman for an easy redirectional tap-in. The goal was Poolman’s third of the season and came shorthanded.
“Yeah that was a good pass by KC,” Poolman said post-game. “But yeah, I did play a little forward in college. I kind of had some good momentum with the way the play was going. I’m sure the coaches weren’t happy I started to go to the net, but it worked out.”
Winnipeg scored another tally early in the second period, giving the home team a three-goal lead. With defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen already in the penalty box for tripping, Sabres’ forward Zemgus Girgensons broke his stick while penalty killing, essentially handing Winnipeg a partial five-on-three.
Blake Wheeler crossed the puck to Mark Scheifele, who ripped a one-timer on Hutton. The rebound fell onto the waiting stick of Connor, who easily put his 35th of the season into the Buffalo net. Winnipeg did surrender one goal in the middle stanza, however, as Ristolainen got one back on a seemingly easy-looking wrap-around shot that fooled Connor Hellebuyck.
Winnipeg entered the third period up 27-19 in the shot department, a period in which little to nothing happened. Sabres’ head coach and Steinbach product Ralph Kruger was unable to spark his team for a third period comeback, as the Jets held the visitors off the board in the final 20 minutes of the game, walking away with a 3-1 victory. Hellebuyck stopped 25 of 26 pucks fired his way, while Hutton stopped 32 of 35 Winnipeg shots.
“I think our game’s a little bit better than the last time we played them,” said captain Blake Wheeler. “We turned the page a little bit in Washington. We got our pace right. I think we saw what a Stanley Cup contending team looked like and how they play the game. They don’t make a whole lot of plays in the neutral zone trying to create offence. They just got pucks in with a ton of speed and forechecked the heck out of us. That’s a pretty effective way to play the game. I think we’ve stopped trying to look for manufacturing offence out of nothing.”
The Jets will now have two days off before hosting the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday evening, before wrapping up the three-game homestand on Monday against the visiting Arizona Coyotes. With the win, Winnipeg has moved back into a Wild Card playoff spot, leapfrogging Nashville and into the second such place. Puck drop from Bell MTS Place on both Friday and Monday is set for 7:00 PM central.