WINNIPEG - Thanks to another convincing third period, the Winnipeg Jets look like a team that just might will its way right into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Rather than get down on themselves after giving up a goal to the fourth line during the final minute of the second period, the Jets pulled themselves back off the ground and rallied for a 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres before a raucous crowd of 15,004 at MTS Centre on Monday night.
With the win, the Jets wrapped up their eight-game homestand with an impressive 5-1-2 record, improved to 32-27-8 and held down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by three points over the Washington Capitals.
This was mostly a hard-working, lunch-pail effort for the Jets, but there were also a few highlight-reel moments — both of them coming after the Sabres got a goal from Corey Tropp with 34.8 seconds left in the second period to tie the game and set the stage for a dramatic finish.
Jets centre Bryan Little was in on all three goals for the home side.
His long wrister handcuffed Ryan Miller and led to captain Andrew Ladd banging home the rebound at 13:45 of the first period.
The second Little helper featured a crisp pass that sent Wheeler alone on a breakaway and he roofed his shot high to the glove side of Miller for his 15th of the season at 8:02 of the third for the eventual game-winner.
“The scouting report on Miller is that he’s been unbeatable, but if you’re going to beat him, you have to try and go over the shoulder,” said Wheeler. “You always feel fortunate scoring on a goalie like him, he’s probably the best goalie in the league right now.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever scored on him. I’ve seen guys beat him up there. You’re not going to beat him down low, it’s almost impossible. I saw him kind of fading back a little bit and I kind of closed my eyes and gave it a flick and luckily, it hit the crossbar and went down.”
The Jets weren’t done there.
A few shifts later, Little found Chris Thorburn driving down the right wing and he blazed around Sabres defenceman Robyn Regehr and slid the puck past Miller at 10:54, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet for another rousing standing ovation.
“It was awesome,” said Thorburn, who admitted he got a bit lucky on the goal. “I keep saying it every game, it keeps getting louder and louder. I can’t even believe that it can. But these fans are behind us and we’re taking them along with us for the ride and hopefully, it leads us to the playoffs.”
Wheeler tipped his cap to Thorburn about the grinder’s fourth goal of the season.
“It was unbelievable, to be honest,” said Wheeler. “First of all, the speed to get around the defenceman. That was Pavel Datsyuk right there. No joke, with the pull-around and the tuck. That was pretty special.”
Miller wasn’t nearly as impressed by the goal.
“He kind of bailed on the play, put it in my pads,” said Miller. “And he got a nice bounce, it came right back to him. So it looked like a sick toe drag. I’ll give him credit for driving the net. But I don’t want him to get too cocky, that greasy kid. Don’t want him talking about how he toe-dragged everybody.”
The only thing that really mattered about the goal to the Jets was that it provided some valuable insurance and helped them secure another victory.
With only six home games and nine road games left in the regular season, the challenge now is to find a way to bring that energy onto the road.
The challenge remains formidable, but the Jets seem better equipped to handle the bumps than they might have earlier this season.
“At the start of the season, something we struggled with was closing teams out and playing with the lead. Tie games were a struggle for us too,” said Little. “In the last month or so, we’ve really learned how to play with a lead, learned how to play good third periods and finish teams off.
“The biggest thing for us is continuing how we’re playing, no matter what. It seems like we don’t have the same energy on the road and we’re going to find a way to bring the way we play at home onto the road with us for the next road trip.”
The Jets’ playoff lives depend on it.