Jets show rare late-game moxie

By: Adam Wazny | Wednesday, February 20

Buffalo Sabres' center Tyler Ennis (63) and right winger Drew Stafford (21) tangle with Winnipeg Jets' defenseman Mark Stuart as goaltender Ondrej Pavelec makes a skate save during the third period on Feb. 19. Pavelec and the Jets held strong against a late surge by the Sabres to win 2-1. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Maybe these anxious moments are just a sign of a team figuring things out.

The Jets gutted out a 2-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York Tuesday night -- Winnipeg's first victory in four tries -- but it wasn't without some gnawing on fingernails and a rub or two on the rosary. The Jets (6-8-1) played a near-perfect 40 minutes and were looking at a two-goal lead heading into the final period, but instead of continuing on this easy course they chose to throw a listless Sabres squad a lifeline late in the second period.

Uh-oh. Gut check time.

When Jason Pominville scored with 22 seconds left in the second, can you honestly say you weren't worried about the outcome of the game? Don't feel bad if flashbacks to the Boston Bruins game and a last-second goal before the second period horn sounded last Sunday came bubbling up to the surface -- you've been conditioned to prepare for that possibility.

Unlike that nightmare, though, when the team unraveled after giving up a late-second period goal en route to another loss, the Jets managed to take a valuable lesson learned and apply it to Tuesday's affair. Winnipeg didn't blink and won, bringing some much-needed positivity to Jets Nation.

This may mean more than the two points in the standings.

It seems apprehension is a part of every win, however. The Sabres -- not playing their best hockey these days -- pressed for the equalizer but were stonewalled by a Jets defence that simply wouldn't even bend, let alone break. It was an unfamiliar display of mental toughness by a group that's often too fragile when things don't go their way; something successful programs do each night without mention.

For every chance the home side had (Buffalo outshot Winnipeg 11-5 in the third), the visitors pushed back even harder. Some of that credit goes to the head coach.

Perhaps foreseeing a possible photo finish, Claude Noel essentially held a tryout among the forwards in the first two periods, mixing and matching lines to see who wanted to play. Shifts were skated in seemingly random combinations, Noel rewarding those who were making a difference, and sure enough the bench shrunk to 10 forwards in the third.

Include Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who made 29 saves, among those who showed signs of mental toughness, as well. Coming in to the contest, Pavelec was holding just three wins, a 3.15 goals against average and a .889 save percentage. Two of the three numbers went up after Tuesday (he has a 2.96 GAA and a .896 save percentage now). If his club is going to play this close, defensive style in search of success, solid goaltending is a necessary part of the equation. This falls to Pavelec, he needs to keep his balance on Noel's tightrope or the whole thing comes crashing down.

Winnipeg is now 4-4-1 in one goal games. The loss to Pittsburgh last Friday ended with an empty net tally so that one could have went either way, as well. That's 10 out of 15 games where the score is slim. This is the reality for the club -- they won't blow anyone out on a regular basis, nor will they get blown out every other night.

It's a tough way to live. Lessons will be learned.

Are the Jets starting to get it? Slow down. Call it to be determined; it's way too early to say. That Winnipeg showed some strength in a third period in Buffalo -- at a time when many of the aforementioned close games will be determined moving forward this season -- is something to build on, one has to figure.


Adam Wazny is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer who has covered sports in the city for over a decade. He has worked as a reporter for both the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun, and now spends most of his time checking his Twitter. Did someone say Twitter? Find him here: @wazoowazny.

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