For the past week, Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel has lamented his team’s inability to defend. He doesn’t whine about his team’s inability to score. He’s come to accept that. So, as most coaches in the NHL demand these days, Noel simply asks his team to stop the opposition from scoring.
Saturday night in Buffalo, the Jets defended beautifully. The defense played one of its finest games of the season as the Jets beat the Sabres 2-1 in overtime.
Fittingly, a defenseman, Johnny Oduya, scored the winning goal at the 57 second mark of overtime as the Jets improved to 20-16-5, won their first game of 2012, snapped a brief two-game losing streak and moved into ninth place in the East, just a point behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.
After losing 7-3 in Montreal and 4-0 in Toronto this week, the Jets played a tremendously sound defensive game. In fact, the Jets blocked 20 shots. Zach Bogosian, who played 29 minutes and four seconds, blocked six shots himself.
Still, the Jets can’t score. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was rock solid, making 31 saves to get the win, but Winnipeg took 41 shots at Buffalo’s No. 2 goaltender Jhonas Enstrom and managed just two goals. Oduya scored his second of the season to win it. Blake Wheeler, the Jets leading scorer (tied with Evander Kane), scored the Jets first goal — only his eighth of the season. When Wheeler scored, at 19:55 of the second period, it was Winnipeg’s first goal in 106 minutes and 52 seconds.
Say what you will, the Jets have played much better this season than most fans expected. In fact, they’ve played better defensively than anyone thought possible. And in the last six games, the Jets have gone 4-2-0 while scoring only 13 goals, won two of those games in overtime by scores of 1-0 at home and 2-1 on the road, and despite a season-long road record of 6-10-4, have won two of the last six on the road.
The Jets have played tremendously well defensively for the past month — with the exception of the games in Montreal and Toronto — and four of the last six games were particularly responsible. Not surprisingly, all were played without Dustin Byfuglien, the man the Winnipeg Free Press called "the team’s best defenseman."
"I thought we played a way better 60 minute game," said Noel after Saturday night’s game. "We got a timely goal in overtime and I thought we played a pretty good road game. I thought Oduya’s goal was a great shot.
"I would have liked more offense, but I wanted a better 60-minute game and I wanted more checking. I don’t think much about offense. I want us to check better and play hard for 60 minutes and we did that."
Noel doesn’t think about offense because he doesn’t have much. Saturday night he got an excellent checking game and a solid defensive effort and that’s why the Jets won for the first time 2012.
If they play like that on Tuesday night in Boston, they might survive a road trip that looked shaky on Thursday.