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The Winnipeg Jets are heading back to the playoffs — and they’re poised to make plenty of noise if Saturday night’s dominating performance is any indication.
A 5-0 victory over the Nashville Predators at Bell MTS Place should put to rest any concerns about whether this team has what it takes to go on another extended spring run. It was arguably the most complete game of the season, at just the right time.
“The crowd was awesome. They were so loud and into it. That really helped us carry some momentum and really helped us get into this game,” said goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who stopped all 33 shots he faced to record a shutout for the second straight start, suggesting he’s rounding into last year’s form, which saw him as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
“They were chanting, and that’s what you get in playoffs. This whole city is ready for playoffs.”
Indeed, the raucous home crowd appeared to recognize the importance of the match-up, with Winnipeg starting the night with just a two point lead over Nashville and needing just a point to clinch a post-season berth for a second straight year and the third time in eight seasons since the NHL returned.
With a four-point buffer, a game in hand and just two weeks left in the regular season, the first division crown in Jets history is now very much in sight. Winnipeg (45-26-4) has seven games left, while Nashville (42-28-6) has only six.
“There was lots of energy,” coach Paul Maurice said. “It felt as close to a playoff game in the building. Right from the national anthems there was a buzz. You know what, I really think we needed that. I was worried about this one, more for just coming off the West Coast. This is our toughest stretch, where would the emotional level be. The fans didn’t give you a chance not to be wired. You could feel it on the bench. It was great.”
Kyle Connor scored the first hat trick of his young NHL career, setting a new personal benchmark with 32 goals. A new-look second line with Kevin Hayes (one goal, three assists) and Patrik Laine (one assist, two goal posts) was dangerous all night.
“He’s up there with one of the best passers I’ve seen and played with. He creates a lot of space with his size and really good hands for that big of a guy, too. He always seems to find the open guy, so it’s been fun playing with him right now,” Connor said of Hayes.
Sure, you can always nitpick and find something to improve upon. But this was as close to regular-season perfection as it gets. The Jets didn’t even take a single penalty on the night, a sure-fire indication they had their skating legs going.
In a big test against their main rival, they passed with flying colours — even with a couple of star pupils in Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey still out of the lineup with injuries.
Connor opened the scoring at 4:42 of the second period with a highlight-reel goal in which he undressed P.K. Subban with a toe-drag and then roofed a backhand shot on Pekka Rinne. When the 22-year-old pending restricted free agent goes into contract negotiations this summer with Kevin Cheveldayoff, his agent should just play video of that goal on a loop.
“I was coming up with a lot of speed, and I think P.K. was a little bit flat-footed, so I tried to take advantage of that,” Connor said.
His goal came less than two minutes after it appeared Nashville had struck first. Calle Jarnkrok deflected a Mattias Ekholm point shot past Hellebuyck, but video review showed his stick was above his shoulders and therefore it was waved off.
After Rinne made a series of big stops following the Connor goal to keep his team within one, 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.
Then Hayes made it 3-0 just 85 seconds later when he fired a shot from a terrible angle right through Rinne. 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 middle frame may have been Winnipeg’s most impressive 20 minutes of the season as they scored three times and outshot Nashville 19-8. And the Jets didn’t exactly take the foot off the gas in the third, either, tilting the ice for most of the 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 career high with 32 goals. On this one, Laine had a glorious opportunity to break an 11-game scoring drought but opted to feed a wide-open Connor.
“I’ve been giving you back door tap-ins for two years. You finally got a hatty, eh?” Wheeler said, with Connor in ear-shot, in the room following the game.
“That’s actually surprising. I would have thought he had one before that. But job well done by him. He’s a guy that we rely on for offence and scored a huge goal for us to get us going. We hadn’t scored a goal for about a game-and-a-half (they were blanked 5-0 in Vegas Thursday), so he made an incredible play there to get us on the board. Hard work pays off. He’s been on the puck all year. He’s only two years into this thing, but still surprised it took him that long to get a hatty.”
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 the Jets, which continues Monday night against the Dallas Stars. Visits from the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens follow.