Having eked out a win over the Buffalo Sabres, Evander Kane and the Winnipeg Jets were already looking ahead to the next big test in their late-season bid to make the playoffs: Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
”This game means nothing now,” said Kane, referring to the Jets’ 2-1 win over the Sabres on Monday night. ”We needed this game in order to make something of tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the biggest game of our season.”
Antti Miettinen’s shot from the right circle that just dribbled in over the goal line with 7:36 remaining proved to be the difference in keeping the Jets in the playoff race.
Winnipeg (24-19-3) improved to 6-0-1 in its past seven and moved within a point of the idle New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, who hold the Eastern Conference’s final two playoff spots. Just as important, the Jets also crept to within a point of Southeast Division-leading Washington. That sets up a critical showdown on Tuesday, when Winnipeg travels to play the Capitals in the final week of the season.
”I think it’s been circled on our calendar for a long time now,” Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. ”We wanted to put ourselves in a position where tomorrow’s going to be a meaningful game, and we’ve done that. So here it is.”
The win didn’t come easily against a Sabres team that was playing for pride – having been eliminated from contention following an 8-4 loss to the New York Rangers on Friday – and riding a hot goalie in Jhonas Enroth.
Enroth was nearly the difference in stopping 37 shots, including Kane’s first-period penalty shot.
He had little chance to stop the two that got past him. Aaron Gagnon opened the scoring 7:32 into the second period by redirecting in Derek Meech’s centering pass. And then there was Miettinen’s shot that found its way in through a crowd in front.
The shot sneaked in under Enroth’s left arm and had enough to dribble in behind him.
Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec then preserved the victory by stopping 24 shots, including a huge glove save on Thomas Vanek with 5:45 left. Allowed to walk in from the right circle, Vanek held the puck waiting for a hole to open up and then snapped a shot, which Pavelec snagged with a quick wave of his glove.
”It just hit my glove. I don’t know what to say,” Pavelec said. ”I think the guys deserve my help, because they played really well, and that’s our job: to make the save.”
Vanek scored the lone goal for Buffalo (19-21-6), which has lost six straight against the Jets.
”I thought Jhonas played great,” Vanek said. ”And I thought we had some good chances. We had some tap-ins that we missed. If you can’t score, you can’t score.”
Winnipeg’s seven-game point streak is its longest since going 6-0-1 from Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2006, when the franchise was still the Atlanta Thrashers. In their second season in Winnipeg, the Jets are attempting to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and only the second time in the team’s 13-year history.
Enroth bounced back after both he and Ryan Miller allowed four goals apiece to the Rangers.
His best series of saves came with just under 5 minutes left in the second period.
Dustin Byfuglien’s one-timer from the left circle caromed off the far post, causing a scramble in front. Enroth kicked away Gagnon’s shot from in close and then, with his back to the play, Enroth reached out blindly with his right arm to stop Ladd’s shot from going into the open net.
Then there was his save on Kane’s penalty shot 14:59 in. Enroth got just enough of his glove on Kane’s shot to have the puck deflect off the crossbar and over the net.
Kane was awarded the penalty shot – the first of his career – when he broke up the middle, got a step on Andrej Sekera before being tripped up from behind by the Sabres defenseman.
Not all the news is good for the Jets. Already missing center Olli Jokinen (ankle) and defenseman Zach Bogosian (concussion), Winnipeg lost forward Kyle Wellwood, who hurt his right hand blocking Vanek’s shot in the second period.
Jets coach Claude Noel would only say Wellwood sustained a long-term injury to his hand.
”We know what’s at stake,” Noel said, looking ahead to facing the Capitals. ”It’s the time of the year to put your best foot forward.”
NOTES: Vanek’s goal was the 248th of his career, good for sixth on the franchise list, one ahead of Mike Foligno and four behind Craig Ramsay. … The Jets have converted on just eight of 28 penalty shots and have missed on seven straight. Kane scored the franchise’s last penalty shot, beating Washington’s Michal Neuvirth on Oct. 8, 2010. … Sabres rookie C Mikhail Grigorenko played his first NHL game in a month after being recalled from QMJHL Quebec last week.