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It was a play that likely went unnoticed to the casual viewer, especially given everything else that went down Saturday. The unselfish act by slumping scorer Patrik Laine commanded plenty of post-game respect inside the Winnipeg Jets locker-room.
The clock was ticking down in the Jets’ playoff-clinching 5-0 victory over the Nashville Predators when Laine — stuck on 29 goals for 11 games and counting — got a perfect set-up from Kevin Hayes right in the slot.
He’d hit two posts earlier in the contest, and nobody would blame the Finnish sniper if he pulled the trigger in an attempt to end the drought. But he didn’t. Instead, Laine made a sweet dish to Kyle Connor, who one-timed a blast past Pekka Rinne for his first career hat trick with nine seconds to play.
Coach Paul Maurice said Laine’s decision speaks volumes about his overall development.
“He has a really strong awareness of what’s going on around him. Patty wants to play well. Sure, an offensive guy wants to score goals. He hit those two bars and his game didn’t get worse. There’s the maturity that we’re starting to see,” said Maurice.
“He’s 20 years old and he wears it when he’s not scoring because he’s scored his whole life and he wants to score. But his game was rock-solid (Saturday), he won some battles along the wall, some good back-checks, some great chances to score. He’s not a selfish player on the ice.”
Connor, who began the night tied with Laine for goals and is now up to 32, was singing the praises of his linemate.
“It’s just the character he is. He cares about this team first and he’s a very underrated passer. I don’t think that gets enough recognition,” he said.
The Jets made a huge splash at last year’s trade deadline in landing Paul Stastny. And they grabbed another big fish this year in Kevin Hayes, once again filling a void for a second-line centre.
The similarities don’t end there.
Stastny put up four goals and nine assists in 19 regular-season games with the Jets. And Hayes? He had four goals and six assists in his first 13 regular-season games with the Jets.
Hayes had a career-high four points Saturday night, including assists on all three of Connor’s goals. It was quite a debut for the new-look line of Hayes, Connor and Laine.
“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.
No doubt the Jets hope Hayes can replicate the playoff success of Stastny, who had six goals and nine assists in 17 post-season games for the Jets last spring.
Winnipeg was on its best behaviour Saturday, completely avoiding the sin bin against Nashville. Maurice was asked if that’s a sign of how far his team has come, considering the parade to the penalty box last October when the Jets took eight consecutive minors in the first two periods of what ended up being a 3-0 loss.
“That game was a one-off. That game was two bullies meeting on a street corner, one liked the result of the last fight, one didn’t, and nobody told the police,” Maurice said in a very funny reference to the fact it was the first time they’d met since Winnipeg ousted Nashville in the playoffs last spring.
“If they’d just let them fight it out there wouldn’t have been any penalties, but everything got called.”
Speaking of Maurice, Saturday’s triumph was the 693rd of his career and put him ahead of the legendary Dick Irvin for seventh on the all-time list for wins by an NHL coach. Up next is Lindy Ruff, who has 736.
“He’s just a young man. He’s got a long ways to go,” captain Blake Wheeler said of his 52-year-old bench boss.
Rest is clearly a priority right now for the Jets, who cancelled a scheduled practice Sunday in favour of a day away from the rink. They also didn’t skate last Friday (flying back from Vegas) or last Tuesday (the day after their win in Los Angeles and the day before back-to-back games in Anaheim and Vegas).
They’ll hope to conserve plenty of energy for Monday night’s visit from Dallas in what is a possible playoff preview, then take another day off on Tuesday. Visits from the New York Islanders on Thursday and the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday will finish the final homestand of the regular season.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.