Connor’s hat trick helps Jets top Preds, clinch playoff spot
Then, they made it a reality.
Connor had his first NHL hat trick and added an assist, Connor Hellebuyck made 33 saves for his second shutout of the season and the Jets clinched a playoff spot with a 5-0 victory over the Nashville Predators.
Connor notched his second goal with 4:38 remaining in the third period, and completed the hat trick with 9 seconds left.
“That whole play starts with my linemates,” Connor said of center Kevin Hayes and right wing Patrik Laine. “We were kind of joking, saying they were looking for me on that last shift and Patty made a great pass. I was just wide open there.”
Hayes had a goal and three assists, and Andrew Copp also scored for the Jets. The shutout was the 14th of Hellebuyck’s career, and second in as many starts.
Pekka Rinne stopped 38 shots for the Predators, who are in second place in the Central Division, four points back of the Jets.
Winnipeg made some lineup changes for the game, slotting Nikolaj Ehlers on the left wing with center Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and bumping Laine down to the right side of the second line with Hayes and Connor.
“I liked all of them,” coach Paul Maurice said. “I don’t have a complaint about the effort of all the lines.”
Hellebuyck was impressed with what he saw in front of him.
“They were phenomenal,” he said. “They were getting their sticks on everything, they were blocking shots, they were controlling the pace of play.”
The Jets were starting a four-game homestand and are 5-1-0 in their past six games. They won the season series with the Predators 3-1.
Nashville was beginning a three-game road trip and is 3-2-1 in its past six games.
“Biggest game of the year up to this point and they’re just better than us,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. “It’s disappointing.”
The teams developed an intense rivalry last season, when the Jets defeated the Predators in Game 7 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I mean, that was a little bit different buzz than we’ve had in the building all year,” Wheeler said. “Everyone was fired up for this one. We fed off that. I thought it was our best game of the year.”
After a fast-paced, scoreless first period, Winnipeg mounted a 3-0 lead in the second.
Nashville appeared to get the game’s first goal three minutes into the second with a deflected shot by Calle Jarnkrok, but it was disallowed after review for Jarnkrok’s high stick.
Connor scored his 30th goal of the season after he took a pass from Hayes, raced down the ice and got around Predators defenseman P.K. Subban in the slot before flipping a backhand shot by Rinne at 4:42. It also marked a career-high 58 points for Connor.
Copp made it 2-0 at 14:16 on a second opportunity. He whiffed on an attempt to put a rebound into an open side of the net, but got the puck behind the goal-line and sent a shot that bounced in off a standing Rinne.
Hayes, acquired by the Jets from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, stretched the lead after spinning around by the boards and firing a shot that got between Rinne and a post.
Both teams kept up the pace in the third period, with Rinne robbing Wheeler on a shot.
“We lost 5-nothing,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette responded when asked to assess the game. “I thought the first period, we played really well. I thought we had the edge and just with what we were trying to do I thought we were sharp and on point and then the next 40 (minutes) turned, we weren’t good at all.”
NOTES: Maurice has 693 career victories, passing Dick Irvin for the seventh-most wins in NHL history.
Predators: at Minnesota on Monday night.
Jets: host Dallas on Monday night.