Wheeler’s one-timer breaks tie in third as Buf­falo again fails to win back-to-back games

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Lance Lysowski

Win­nipeg Jets de­fense­man Josh Mor­ris­sey was skat­ing alone in the left face­off cir­cle by the time Buf­falo Sabres winger Kyle Ok­poso could ab­sorb Mark Scheifele’s bas­ket­ball-style pick.

Within sec­onds, Mor­ris­sey passed to the slot, where Jets winger Blake Wheeler one-timed the puck over the goal line for the even­tual game-win­ning goal in a 3-1 vic­tory over the Sabres on Sun­day af­ter­noon in KeyBank Cen­ter.

The se­quence spoiled an im­pres­sive per­for­mance against a po­ten­tial Stan­ley Cup con­tender, a fact that would have been a point of pride for the Sabres ear­lier in the sea­son. Not any­more.

Buf­falo fell to 27-21-6 and has not won back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13. Though two points sep­a­rate the Sabres from the sec­ond wild-card play­off spot, nei­ther coach Phil Hous­ley nor his play­ers were in­ter­ested in a sil­ver lin­ing.

“I don’t know how many times we can take the moral vic­tory any­more,” Jack Eichel, whose 18th goal of the sea­son tied the score in the sec­ond pe­riod, lamented. “I mean, we’re

55 games into the year . ... Other teams are get­ting points, mov­ing up in the stand­ings. We’re not.”

The Sabres con­trolled play for much of the af­ter­noon, fin­ish­ing with more shots on goal (36-29) and shot at­tempts (66-51), de­spite the Jets hav­ing a pro­lific of­fense. This was also a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sound de­fen­sive game by Buf­falo, which played with­out Zach Bo­gosian, who is day-to-day with a lower-body in­jury.

Win­nipeg goalie Con­nor Helle­buyck made a num­ber of timely saves — in­clud­ing nine dur­ing the Sabres’ five failed power plays — and the Sabres proved ca­pa­ble of trad­ing chances with the NHL’s best. Eichel’s wrist shot from the right cir­cle tied the score, 1-1, at 12:01 into the sec­ond pe­riod and was only his third goal in 14 games.

How­ever, since it last won backto-back games, Buf­falo is 0-7-1 fol­low­ing a win and has earned only five points through five games of this seven-game home stand.

The game had a play­off feel dur­ing the third pe­riod with few scor­ing chances, and Ok­poso al­most gave Buf­falo the lead when he col­lected a pass from Zem­gus Gir­gen­sons and shot on goal from be­low the right face­off dot with nine min­utes re­main­ing in reg­u­la­tion.

Helle­buyck made the save and his team­mates trapped the Sabres in the other end of the ice. Scheifele made a pick near the blue line to pre­vent Ok­poso from cov­er­ing Mor­ris­sey, whose back-door pass to Wheeler re­sulted in a 2-1 lead with 3:55 re­main­ing.

“It’s a tough one,” Ok­poso, who stood silent for five sec­onds af­ter be­ing asked about the goa­head goal, said. “They made a play when it mat­tered. That’s it. I thought we out­played them for a lot of the game. They had their chances, but they made a play when it mat­tered.”

While Ok­poso shoul­dered blame for the goal, Matt Hun­wick and Ras­mus Dahlin were caught on the same side of the net. Dahlin was un­able to break up the pass, and no one cov­ered Wheeler skat­ing to the slot.

The Sabres did not threaten in the fi­nal three min­utes, and Scheifele scored an empty-net goal with seven sec­onds re­main­ing to help Win­nipeg (35-18-3) take sole pos­ses­sion of first place in the Cen­tral Di­vi­sion.

“It stings be­cause of the po­si­tion we’re in,” Hous­ley ex­plained. “We need points. It was tough be­cause we win a game [Satur­day], and I thought our ef­fort or just the way we were play­ing wasn’t [like] tonight. We came and we charged. It was a good, solid game by us. We need to find a way to get into over­time or maybe score an over­time goal, get to the shootout. We broke there.”

Buf­falo made its share of mis­takes, too. It al­lowed two short­handed break­aways, the sec­ond of which An­drew Copp scored on to give the Jets a 1-0 lead at 3:01 into the sec­ond pe­riod.

Dahlin, skat­ing along side Hun­wick with Bo­gosian out, per­formed like an 18-year-old rookie. His de­ci­sion to drop to one knee near the op­pos­ing blue line led to Copp’s break­away and his in­abil­ity to keep the puck in the of­fen­sive zone gave Scheifele room on the empty-net goal.

Carter Hut­ton made 26 saves and has lost four of his past five starts. How­ever, he stopped a first-pe­riod short-handed break­away and re­cov­ered nicely from be­ing pulled in a 7-3 to Chicago on Feb. 1.

The Sabres will host the New York Is­lan­ders, who have won nine of their last 12, Tues­day night and have won only 10 of 30 games since their 10-game win­ning streak ended Nov. 29. Though the play­offs are two months away, the Feb. 25 trade dead­line is rapidly ap­proach­ing and the com­pe­ti­tion is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly more dif­fi­cult.

“It’s not go­ing to be easy,” Hut­ton said. “A lot of the guys in this room have never been to the play­offs and this is play­off hockey. It’s go­ing to be tough and ev­ery night is go­ing to be tough. It’s go­ing to be a coin flip. … It’s a good thing to be play­ing mean­ing­ful games this time of year. This is a new thing for a lot of guys in here, and we just have to keep to it.”

James P. McCoy/Buf­falo News

Jets right wing Blake Wheeler, right, scores the game-win­ning goal against Sabres goal­tender Carter Hut­ton in the third pe­riod on Sun­day.

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