WINNIPEG - Connor Hellebuyck could not possibly have been any better.
On Friday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, the Winnipeg Jets 24-year-old Vezina Trophy candidate made 47 saves to lead the Jets to a thrilling 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators. With the victory, the Jets took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Central Division final (Western Conference semifinal) and stole a road game to open the series.
“I thought it was good tonight and the guys in front of me allowed me to see shots and our details were right,” said Hellebuyck. “It’s tough to get into this one. I don’t want to overstep myself and say something I shouldn’t. This is a long series and that’s a great team over there and they’re going to push back. They are good.
“I feel good, my body’s right and I have great organization here behind me. I love playoffs. I love the intensity. I love the game in front of me. Intense is the right way to put it.”
Watch video highlights here.
If you relied on statistics, you would never have believed the Jets were the winners in this one. As it is, the Jets have stolen home ice advantage – and the Jets had the best home record in the NHL this season.
Nashville outshot Winnipeg 48-19, outhit them 29-22, won 66 per cent of the face-offs and had three power play opportunities to none for the Jets and yet Winnipeg scored the first three goals and got a truly brilliant performance out of Hellebuyck, obviously the game’s first star.
In the opening period, the Jets were outshot 20-4, but after 20 minutes, the visitors went to the intermission with a 1-0 lead.
On Winnipeg's fourth shot of the period, Brandon Tanev gave the Jets that 1-0 advantage as he converted a rebound at the side of the net after great play by Bryan Little.
Nashville dominated the period. Not only did they get 20 shots at Connor Hellebuyck, they outhit Winnipeg 17-9 and won 73 per cent of the face-offs. Still, the Jets got the first goal and that set the stage for an odd night.
In the second period, the Predators outshot the Jets 16-12, but Winnipeg scored two unanswered goals.
Paul Stastny got the first at 9:01 after a terrific rush by Nikolaj Ehlers. Patrik Laine picked up an assist and Winnipeg had a 2-0 lead. Then, at 17:51, Blake Wheeler broke into the Press zone, dealt the puck to Mark Scheifele who toe-dragged and on his forehand ripped a perfectly-placed wrister past Pekka Rinne and the Jets were up 3-0. Kyle Connor also added an assist as Winnipeg found itself 20 minutes away from stealing one on the road.
In the second period, the Jets were much better, but still not as solid as the home side. Winnipeg outhit Nashville 9-6 and won enough face-offs to lower the Preds proficiency to 70.6 per cent, but the Predators still couldn't believe they were down 3-0.
Meanwhile, Predators head coach Peter Laviolette had seen enough. He pulled Rinne, a Vezina Trophy candidate and replaced him with rookie Juuse Saros. Meanwhile, Hellebuyck had now played eight periods -- 160 minutes -- without allowing a goal.
But that was soon to end.
At the 1:26 mark of the third period, Kevin Fiala found himself alone in front of the Jets net and he tapped a pass from Kyle Turris past Hellebuyck and suddenly it was 3-1 with plenty of time to play.
But Winnipeg hung on. The Jets had more opportunities than two third-period shots might indicate, but whenever Winnipeg took the puck through the neutral zone, they simply dumped it deep and sent in two checkers. They spent the final eight minutes killing the clock and when Laviolette pulled Saros and went to six attackers with 2:29 to play, Nashville seemed desperate.
However, the Jets shot-blockers and Hellebuyck kept Nashville at bay and then at 19:24, Scheifele won a race to a loose puck and scored his second goal of the game into the empty net. That sealed it and the Jets had a 1-0 series lead.
Game 2 in the series goes Sunday at 6 p.m. at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. It's on CBC.