Jets prepare to take on Sabres without captain Blake Wheeler

NHL

The Winnipeg Jets will be without their captain for a stretch when they host the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.

Blake Wheeler sustained a lower-body injury in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday. Jets coach Paul Maurice said Monday that Wheeler’s absence would be “weeks, not days.”

Wheeler has 17 points (one goal, 16 assists) in 22 games, including 10 points in his last five games.

“It’s a big loss, on the ice and off the ice,” the Jets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois said. “To fill in his boots, it’s going to take the whole team to contribute, not just on the ice but off the ice, too.”

Defenseman Neal Pionk returned to practice with his teammates Monday for the first time since sustaining a concussion against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 5 and could return to face Buffalo.

The Jets will go with a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen against the Sabres, opting not to recall anyone from their American Hockey League affiliate due to a positive COVID-19 test.

“We had a positive test with the (Manitoba) Moose,” Maurice said. “So because of that — and Neal Pionk was good to go — we want to make sure that we get everybody tested a bunch of times throughout the Moose, so that we’re not bringing in somebody that we’re not sure of.”

The Sabres open up a three-game road trip looking to break out of a funk, going 0-5-2 in their past seven games with just one win in their past 12 outings (1-9-2).

The Sabres struggled to keep the puck out of their net for much of the losing slide, including a stretch of 20 goals allowed in three games from Nov. 29 to Dec. 4. They have tightened up on that front in each of their past three games, with just six total goals allowed in regulation.

A large part of that has been the play of rookie goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who started each of the past three games since being recalled Dec. 6 and brings a 1.98 goals-against average and .938 save percentage into the week.

“Physically how he looked and his psyche, I think, is at another level from training camp,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “That’s good. We obviously would love for that to continue. … He looks good, he feels good. Because of that, (the NHL is) the right place that he can make progress in the development areas right here, right now. It’s simple and it’s an easy decision based on that.”

While the Sabres have cleaned up defensively, the offense has taken a hit, scoring only three goals in three games.

“I feel like we’ve just got to maybe not think as much out there,” Buffalo forward Victor Olofsson said. “We’ve been working a lot on our defense, and I think it kind of shows. Maybe it takes away from the offense a little bit because our mindset’s been more defense but maybe kind of just let our shoulders down and have fun out there and I’m sure it will come.”

Malcolm Subban, who has been out since sustaining an injury in his Sabres debut on Dec. 4, was a full participant in practice Monday and traveled with the team. While it’s expected he’ll start later in the week, he could be an option as the backup against the Jets.

–Field Level Media

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