5 things to watch for as the Jets battle the Sabres

The Winnipeg Jets kick off the second half of the season and bid farewell to 2013 with a New Years Eve game against the Buffalo Sabres tonight at the MTS Centre.
Winnipeg Jets goalie Al Montoya has had a hot glove as of late but head coach Claude Noel won't say whether he or Ondrej Pavelec will start tonight against the Buffalo Sabres. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

The Winnipeg Jets kick off the second half of the season and bid farewell to 2013 with a New Years Eve game against the Buffalo Sabres tonight at the MTS Centre. 

The Jets (18-18-5) climbed back to .500 with a win over the Colorado Avalanche Monday night in Denver. The Sabres (11-24-4) are coming off a 2-1 shootout win against the mighty Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

With that, here are five things for you to keep in mind in tonight’s game:

Don’t let records fool you

Buffalo may be dead last in the NHL but don’t let their record fool you.

The Sabres won the first and only game so far this season against the Jets, beating Winnipeg 4-2 back on Dec. 17. With the win, the Sabres snapped a six-game losing streak to the Jets and sparked a stretch of strong play for their club.

Buffalo has collected points in four of their last five games since playing Winnipeg.

“Buffalo has been playing really well lately … really since we went in there and they beat us,” Jets forward Blake Wheeler said after practice Monday.

“I think that we feel like we owe them one and [tonight] is going to be a good test for us again cause they’re a team that’s playing really well right now.”

Winnipeg returns to the MTS Centre having won their last two games at home. The Jets are a perfect three for three at home against the Sabres since returning to Winnipeg in 2011.

Miller time

One of the biggest reasons behind the Sabres’ recent success is the superb play of goalie, Ryan Miller.

He recorded a career-high 49-save performance, and went a perfect six-for-six in the shootout to earn a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals Sunday night.

Miller is coming off a few subpar seasons and with a slow start to this year many wondered if he still carried that same stability he once possessed earlier in his career. Trade talks surfaced most of last season with few teams interested in making the gamble for such a high price tag.

Miller has a league-worst 17 losses this season but that has a lot to do with the product in front of him. The Sabres average a league-worst 1.69 goals per game, not exactly the kind of offensive cushion most goalies would enjoy.

Miller has also faced the most shots in the NHL — a total of 1, 203 pieces of rubber have been aimed his way this season.

It looks, at least for now, that that some of that magic from earlier in his career has returned for Miller and a strong game from him could mean the difference against a Jets team that also struggles to score. 

Montoya gets another start

Head coach Claude Noel was unbreakable when asked at practice Monday who would start in net for the Jets tonight, but he later confirmed after Tuesday's morning skate that it will be backup Al Montoya. Montoya has earned a pair of wins in the last two games, including an almost flawless performance against the Avs Sunday.

“It’s part of managing your team,” Noel said about the choice of which goaltender to start each game. “It’s just you kind of go with what’s going. We’ll go game by game which is what we said we would do.

“I thought Al played a pretty good game but it doesn’t move anything from Pavelec. Pavelec is still our No. 1 goalie and we’ll take it from there. He’s still a guy we lean on. We’re fortunate that we have two good goalies and that’s great.”

Montoya is 7-2-1 this season with a 2.02 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Pavelec is 11-16-4, with a 3.03 GAA and .902 save percentage. 

Wheels still rollin’

Unlike the goalie situation in Winnipeg, there’s no debate on who has been the hottest player for the Jets in the past month.

Wheeler has scored 14 points, including 10 goals in the last 13 games. Only Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp has more goals (12) in December.

Wheeler's last three have been game winners for the Jets, with his latest coming with one second remaining in OT against Colorado.

Asked if he’d ever been so hot at any other point in his hockey career, Wheeler used humour to divert the question: “I don’t know, maybe pee-wees or something,” he said.

Joking aside, Wheeler’s terrific play of late has many believing he could be wearing red, white and blue for the USA at the Olympics come February.

It’s something in the back of his mind and motivation that could benefit Jets fans as they watch him compete for a roster spot.

“When you’re hand-picking teams those things are out of your control,” Wheeler said. “My focus is trying to help this team in Winnipeg win hockey games and I feel like if I do that I’ll be playing my best hockey and from there, it’s going to be up to them.

"We’ll see what happens but it’s kind of out of my hands.”

Number 500

It’s a very special milestone for Jets forward Chris ThorburnThe gritty veteran is set to play his 500th game in the NHL tonight.

Thorburn has played most of his careen within the Thrashers/Jets organization but spent time in Buffalo (two games) and Pittsburgh (39) until he arrived in Atlanta for the start of the 2007-08 season.

No. 22 has played on the third line for the last month and a bit, alongside Devin Setoguchi and OlliJokinen. Thorburn has 34 career goals and 56 assists for 90 points.

He has zero goals and four assists in 31 games this year.

Prediction: 3-1 Jets 

The Jets understand what’s at stake in this game.

They’re back at .500 and a loss to the league’s worst team just won’t cut it if they hope to make the climb in to the playoff race.

The Jets rise to the occasion and take another small step forward with a win.

About the Author

Jeff Hamilton

Winnipeg Jets

Jeff Hamilton is an award-winning journalist born and raised in Winnipeg. Jeff is a graduate of the Carleton University journalism program and has worked for CBC in Ottawa and Manitoba. This will be his second year covering his hometown team. Jeff is passionate about hockey, playing and has studied the game his entire life.