WINNIPEG - This wasn’t a game up for debate, and I don’t care who was missing from the Winnipeg Jets lineup.
The Sabres came into town carrying the rank smell of a rotting Buffalo hide, making the Winnipeg Jets dressing room seem almost Febreze-like in its tranquility.
As bad as the Jets had been on the road, the Sabres were worse, losers of 10 straight, continuing a season of underachievement that’s drawing calls in upstate New York for firings in high places.
In Buffalo they’re asking, “They spent to the cap for this?”
They can’t score, they can’t defend well and their goalie is in a funk, has been ever since he came back from a concussion after being steamrolled by Boston’s Milan Lucic earlier this season.
In short, the Curved Swords were a mess going into Thursday night’s game at the Hangar on Hargrave, outscored 11-2 in their last two trips to the outhouse.
Just the tonic for a Winnipeg Jets team desperate to reverse their own slide.
The Jets know all about fragile psyches, having been cozy with their own of late, thanks to a 2-6 record to open the New Year, during which they’ve shown all the scoring ability of a drunk at a meeting of the local Christian Women’s Club.
Safe to say a loss to the Sabres on home ice might have signaled a new low, or at least matched the one from early this season, before the Jets were even a real team.
“We get a chance to see what we’re kind of made of,” is how forward Tim Stapleton put it before the game. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun for us, too.”
The little guy was certainly having fun by early in the third period, when his power play goal made it 3-1 and gave the Jets the breathing room they so desperately needed in what turned out to be a 4-1 victory.
One-goal leads, after all, are fragile when in the hands of fragile people.
The fascinating thing about this Jets team, though, is just how critical that one-goal lead is early in a game. Specifically, that first one-goal lead.
“The first goal is huge,” Stapleton said. “When we score first we keep going. We’ve also been the type of team that when we get scored on first, guys might get a little down.”
The numbers don’t lie.
If they don’t score first, the Jets are a miserable 6-13-3.
When they do, they’re now 16-7-2.
So they came out of the gate against the Sabres in an understandably frenzied state, throwing 20 pucks at the Buffalo net in the first period.
And some eight minutes in, their captain came through, redirecting a Ron Hainsey point shot just enough to get past Ryan Miller for the icebreaker.
“I figured if I celebrated really hard they’d think I tipped it,” Andrew Ladd deadpanned.
So the Jets hung a three-goal licking on a team that deserved, maybe even expected, every bit of it.
But, as I said earlier, this was the required result. The no-brainer.
Even without Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien on the blue-line.
Toby Enstrom picked up that slack quite nicely, and right now he’s the hottest Jet, with three goals in three games.
The happiest Jet certainly wasn’t head coach Claude Noel, who seemed to know the Sabres were easy pickings, even if he didn’t say it.
“There were some areas of the game that really gave me grief,” Noel said, referring to play in their own zone in the second period. “We were a little bit fortunate. We’ve got some work to do.”
The coach also thought his team looked like it hadn’t practised in a while.
Typical coach, always looking for the flaws.
Of course, sportswriters aren’t easily impressed, either.
In this game, the Jets did what they had to do.
Saturday, against Florida, they’ll simply have to do it again.
Or it won’t mean a thing.