Conner nets hat trick as Jets clinch playoff spot with 5-0 win over Preds

Get ready for another Whiteout: The Winnipeg Jets are heading back to the playoffs.

Not that there was really any doubt, but they made it official Saturday night with a dominating 5-0 win over the Nashville Predators that clinches a post-season spot for a second straight season and third time in the eight years since the NHL returned to Winnipeg.

The impressive victory at Bell MTS Place also puts the Jets in full control of the Central Division, now four points up on the Predators with just two weeks left in the regular-season. Winnipeg (45-26-4) has seven games left, while Nashville (42-28-6) has only six.

Perhaps most importantly is just how the Jets looked in a big test against their main rival. In a nutshell, they passed with flying colours, playing arguable their most complete game of the season even with a couple star pupils in Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey still out of the lineup with injuries.

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Get ready for another Whiteout: The Winnipeg Jets are heading back to the playoffs.

Not that there was really any doubt, but they made it official Saturday night with a dominating 5-0 win over the Nashville Predators that clinches a post-season spot for a second straight season and third time in the eight years since the NHL returned to Winnipeg.

The impressive victory at Bell MTS Place also puts the Jets in full control of the Central Division, now four points up on the Predators with just two weeks left in the regular-season. Winnipeg (45-26-4) has seven games left, while Nashville (42-28-6) has only six.

Perhaps most importantly is just how the Jets looked in a big test against their main rival. In a nutshell, they passed with flying colours, playing arguable their most complete game of the season even with a couple star pupils in Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey still out of the lineup with injuries.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p>
<p>Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele (55) looks for the rebound off of Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne’s (35) mask as Ryan Ellis (4) defends during the first period.</p>
<p>“></a><figcaption readability=

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele (55) looks for the rebound off of Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne’s (35) mask as Ryan Ellis (4) defends during the first period.

Kyle Connor had a hat trick while Connor Hellebuyck made 32 saves to record a shutout for the second straight start, suggesting he’s close to the Vezina Trophy finalist form of last season.

The pace of the game was incredible, especially in a scoreless first period when there were just seven face-offs. That means there were only six stoppages in play, and it moved so fast that they didn’t even get the league-mandated third TV time-out and ice scrape break.

Winnipeg had plenty of chances — including Patrik Laine hitting the post, Patrik Laine getting robbed by Pekka Rinne and Patrik Laine just missing setting up Kevin Hayes for a tap-in.

He may not have lit the lamp and remains stuck on 29 goals, but No. 29 had a heck of a night.

So did linemate Connor, who opened the scoring at 4:42 of the middle frame with a highlight-reel goal in which he undressed P.K. Subban with a toe-drag and then roofed a backhand shot on Rinne. When the 22-year-old goes into contract negotiations this summer with Kevin Cheveldayoff, his agent should just play video of that tall on a loop.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p>
<p>Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) keeps his eye on the puck as Nashville Predators’ Craig Smith (15) tips it during the first period.</p>
<p>“></a><figcaption readability=

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) keeps his eye on the puck as Nashville Predators’ Craig Smith (15) tips it during the first period.

Connor’s goal actually came 92 seconds after it appeared Nashville had struck first. Calle Jarnkrok deflected a Mattias Ekholm point shot past Connor Hellebuyck, but video review showed it was above his shoulders and therefore waved-off.

After Rinne made a series of big stops following the Connor goal, he appeared to spring a leak later in the period. First it was Andrew Copp who banked a shot in off his legs from behind the net at 14:16, just seconds after he whiffed on a rebound off a Matt Hendricks shot. It’s the

Then, 85 seconds later, Kevin Hayes made it 3-0 when he fired a shot from a terrible angle right through Rinne, who definitely should have had it. Hayes now has four goals with the Jets in 13 games since being acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Rangers. That’s the same number of goals as last year’s prized catch, Paul Stastny, had in 19 regular-season games.

The second period may have been Winnipeg’s most impressive 20 minutes of the season as they scored three times and outshot Nashville 19-8.

And they didn’t exactly take the foot off the gas in the third, either, tilting the ice for most of the period.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p>
<p>Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine (29) can’t get the puck past Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne (35) as he makes the save during the first period.</p>
<p>“></a><figcaption readability=

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine (29) can’t get the puck past Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne (35) as he makes the save during the first period.

Connor made it 4-0 with just under five minutes to play as Hayes set him up on a three-on-one rush. He then finished off the scoring with nine seconds left to set a new career-high with 32 goals.

Overall, shots ended up 43-31 for Winnipeg, and the score could have been even more lopsided had Rinne not made a series of spectacular savesalong the way.

Winnipeg took the season series against Nashville 3-1. Whether they meet again later this spring for an encore to their epic seven-game playoff series from last season remains to be seen.

This was the start of a four-game homestand for Winnipeg, which continues Monday night against the Dallas Stars. Visits from the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens follow.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

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Mike McIntyre