WINNIPEG, MB - Cue the Winnipeg Whiteout – NHL playoff hockey is coming back to Bell MTS Place this spring. Sunday evening was the first opportunity the Winnipeg Jets had to officially punch their ticket to the dance. And they certainly did not fail to impress.
In a phenomenally fast-paced Central Division showdown with the league-leading Nashville Predators, the Jets put together a slew of offence, while providing a hint of what a potential Stanley Cup Playoff matchup would look like in their 5-4 shootout victory over last year’s Western Conference champions.
In a game of such high importance, things began uncharacteristically quiet for the home team. While applying constant pressure for the first minute-and-a-half, the Jets managed to record the game’s first shot, however, it was all Preds for the remaining 18:30 of the opening frame. Building off of four minor penalties taken by the Jets, Nashville recorded 15 shots on the Winnipeg net – 13 of which Connor Hellebuyck stopped. The Jets only managed four shots after 20 minutes of play.
On a four-on-four midway into the first period, Predators’ captain Roman Josi stepped into a wrist shot that found its way past Hellebuyck, for his 11th of the season. Josi – who put up five assists the last time that Nashville was in town – stayed hot against the Jets, with his sixth point in four periods of work. Kyle Turris gave the visitors a 2-0 lead with 0.2 seconds remaining in the first period on a power play strike with Brandon Tanev in the box for interference.
It was most definitely a tale of two halves through 40 minutes of play on Sunday. After being heavily outshot in the first frame, the Jets rebounded with 25 shots in the second period, jumping ahead of Nashville 29-23 after two periods of play. Although Saros and Hellebuyck were able to turn aside many of the pucks directed their way, five goals were scored in the middle period.
Kyle Connor started things off for Winnipeg by digging at a Bryan Little rebound. The goal was Connor’s 29th of the season – tying his fellow American, the injured Brock Boeser for the NHL’s rookie lead. Shortly after Connor’s effort, Nashville’s Ryan Ellis picked a corner from the blue line and gave the Predators a two-goal cushion once again, with his eighth goal of the year.
Dustin Byfuglien brought the Jets to within one goal once again on a howitzer from the point that redirected off of a Nashville stick past Saros. Little tied the game up for Winnipeg on a rocket clapper from top of the circle two minute after the Byfuglien strike. However, it took the Predators just over a minute to respond, with Viktor Arvidsson’s jamming his 28th goal of the year past Hellebuyck.
Although finding themselves trailing 4-3 after 40 minutes, the Jets arguably put together their best all-round period of the season in the middle frame. And they followed it up with continued pressure in the third.
Wasting little time knotting the game back up at fours, captain Wheeler took it into his own hands to ensure the visitors didn’t grab another two-goal cushion. Defenceman Joe Morrow – who put together quite the offensive night – rattled a slap shot square off Saros’ mask, before Wheeler collected the rebound and tucked his 20th of the year past the Finnish keeper.
Although Wheeler’s strike came with 19 minutes left to play, it was the final goal of the game – well, the final goal of record, that is. With opportunities presenting themselves for both Central Division rivals, the goaltenders stood on their heads maintaining the tie game.
Overtime solved nothing, so the game required a shootout. With the Winnipeg crowd on its feet, Mark Scheifele scored the shootout’s only goal with a patient effort, giving the Jets a 5-4 victory, and with it, an official berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Connor put up another stellar effort, recording a goal and two assists with eight shots on net in the victory. Little and Wheeler each also picked up multi-point nights, while Dustin Byfuglien paced the Jets with nearly 31 minutes of ice time.
With the win, Winnipeg has collected victories in five-straight games, and have won nine of their last 12 contests. The final shots in Sunday’s tilt favoured the home team by 11, 47-36. Nashville leads the league with 51 goals by defencemen, five more than their closest competitor.
With defencemen Dmitry Kulikov, Jacob Trouba, and Toby Enstrom all injured, Tucker Poolman slotted back into the Jets’ lineup Sunday, alongside Joe Morrow and Ben Chiarot.
Patrik Laine suffered a minor cut to his chin on an undetected high stick from Josi midway through the second period of play. He left for repairs but returned to the Jets’ bench shortly thereafter, sporting a red tinge to his now famous neck-beard.
Connor Hellebuyck picked up his 39th win of the season, and improved his record to 39-11-9 on the year. With seven games left to play, the Jets could still mathematically catch the Predators, as well as record a 50-win season.
Next up for Winnipeg is the Boston Bruins, who will make their way to Bell MTS Place for a Tuesday night matchup with the Jets, before Winnipeg takes their show on the road for the final time of the regular season with a mini four-game heater out east. Tuesday’s game can be seen live on TSN3 at 7:00 P.M. local time.
Photos by James Carey Lauder