By Scott Taylor

Photo by James Carey Lauder

The Winnipeg Jets are back in the playoffs.

It’s not like it wasn’t inevitable three months ago, but on Saturday night in front of another loud, jammed-to-the-rafters crowd at Bell MTS Place, the Jets ripped the visiting Nashville Predators 5-0 and punched their ticket to the 2019 National Hockey League post-season.

Kyle Connor had three goals and an assist, Kevin Hayes had a goal and three assists and Connor Hellebuyck made 33 saves to record his second shutout of the season and the second in his last two starts. He beat Anaheim 3-0 on Wednesday night. 

It was also interesting that Hellebuyck notched his second-straight shutout and yet was the game’s second star behind Connor, who might have played the best game of his career against the team that the Jets are fighting with over first place in the Central.

Still, despite the hatty and the adulation from the home crowd, Connor gave all of the credit to his linemates.

“Kevin (Hayes) is up there with the best passers I’ve seen,” said Connor modestly. “He has size and skill and great hands. He always seems to make the right pass. It’s a lot of fun playing with Kevin and with Patrik (Laine).

“There was a lot of excitement when that third one went in. It’s the first hat-trick of my career. All the credit goes to my linemates. Patty had a chance to shoot, but he cares about this team more than his own points or goals and he gave me a perfect pass. It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”

With the win, the Jets improved to 45-26-4 and with seven games remaining they not only have 94 points, but have moved four points ahead of second-place Nashville in the race for first in the Central Division. 

“We still have a handful of games left but we want to get in playoff form,” said Connor. “We want to be playing our best and have the systems in place when the playoffs start.”

The first period was brilliantly played. Fast, spirited and with a series of end-to-end rushes, both goaltenders were terrific and the scoring chances were plentiful at both ends of the rink. 

However, while Patrik Laine hit a post and was robbed by Predators’ netminder Pekka Rinne on a clean shot from his office on the left side of the circle a power play, the game remained scoreless after 20 minutes and didn’t like a game that would end with as one-sided a score as it did.

However, in the second period, the Jets took control.

A minute after Nashville had a goal disallowed due to a high stick, Connor took a pass at the blueline from Kevin Hayes, went in on P.K. Subban, completely undressed the Predators’ star defenseman and then beat Rinne on the backhand at 4:42. It was a classic goal scorer’s goal, a highlight-reel effort and Connor’s 30thof the season.

It also gave the Jets a 1-0 lead and they were off to the races.

Winnipeg made it 2-0 at 14:16 of the period on the craziest goal of the year. Matt Hendricks was sent in across the Preds blueline by Mathieu Perreault and found himself in a two-on-one situation with Andrew Copp. After Hendricks’ shot was turned aside by Rinne, the puck rebounded right on to Copp’s stick, but the rightwinger couldn’t corral it and dump it into the empty net. Instead, the puck went into the corner, behind the Nashville net, and while Rinne tried to scramble back into his crease, Copp grabbed the puck before Rinne could get set and fired a shot off the back of the goaltender’s legs and right into the back of the net.

It was Copp’s 11thof the season and it was well-deserved. He’d been around the puck in the Preds zone all night and it just seemed inevitable that he’d get a goal eventually.

Less than two minutes later, the Jets put the playoffs clearly in their sights when Jacob Trouba kept the puck in at the point and slipped it to Kevin Hayes in the rightwing corner. Hayes turned, fired and beat Rinne on the short side to make it 3-0.

In the third period, Connor scored his second of the night at 15:22 when he took a perfect pass from Hayes, went in alone on Rinne and beat the Preds goalie with ease. 

Then with nine seconds remaining, Hayes got the puck to Laine who fed Connor with a perfect pass and the speedy forward with the hands of silk blasted a shot past Rinne to tally his third of the night and 32ndof the season.

The Jets outshot the Predators 43-33, outhit them 28-20 and won 60 per cent of the faceoffs. Winnipeg was zero-for-two on the power play while the Predators did not have a power play opportunity all night. The Jets blocked 22 shots and had only seven giveaways.

It was a big night for the Jets second line. Connor had four points, was plus-four and had six shots on goal. Hayes had four points, was plus-four and had four shots on goals. Laine had one point, was plus-four and had three shots on goal. Brandon Tanev led the Jets in hits with seven.

Winnipeg plays again on Monday night at Bell MTS Place against the Dallas Stars, the team Winnipeg could meet in the first round of the playoffs. Game time is 7 p.m. and can be seen on TSN3.

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