WINNIPEG — The Jets have grown accustomed to the performances of their workhorse goaltender.
Connor Hellebuyck stopped 28 shots and lifted Winnipeg to a critical 2-0 triumph over the Nashville Predators on Saturday. It was his fourth shutout of the season.
“Bucky, he’s a guy that works extremely hard,” said forward Nikolaj Ehlers. “He works hard for this team. He plays hard. He’s a pretty damn good goalie and we’re extremely lucky to have him.
“The way that he’s played for us all year and the last couple of years — but especially this year — is pretty impressive. Without him, we probably would have lost some games down the stretch that we had. He’s kept us in this fight. We like him a lot.”
The Jets, who are in a desperate race for the final wild-card playoff berth with Nashville and Calgary in the NHL’s Western Conference, improved to 44-32-3.
Defenceman Neal Pionk and forward Mark Scheifele scored for Winnipeg before 14,075 fans at Canada Life Centre.
Nashville netminder Jusse Soros made 36 saves on 38 shots as Nashville dropped to 40-31-8 — and three points behind the Jets in the standings.
Pionk gave Winnipeg a 2-0 lead 1:36 into the third period. The defenceman took a great pass from Ehlers at the top of the faceoff circle and fired the puck past Saros. Forward Blake Wheeler also assisted.
The Jets stormed Nashville in the second period, outshooting the Predators 20-5, but only managed one goal.
Just after Ehlers hit the crossbar on the power play, the Jets thought they had increased the score to 2-0 when the puck slid behind Saros into the net. But the referee had already blown the whistle to end the play with Saros down and immediately called the goal off. After a review, the ref’s decision prevailed.
The Jets finally opened the scoring at 15:06 of the second period. Scheifele took a pass from Vladislav Namestnikov, took it to the middle of the ice and fired a shot at Saros. The puck went off the goalie’s glove, off a post, and into the net for Scheifele’s 40th of the season. It is the first time Scheifele has scored 40 goals in a season.
“Obviously a big game and a big time in the game, so obviously that made it feel even better,” Scheifele said. “It was obviously a very, very good feeling and I’m lucky I play with some really good players.”
The Predators held the Jets to 1-0 through the first two periods.
“Saros kept them in it all game,” Scheifele said. “It easily could have been a blowout. He played amazing, so kudos to him. He’s a fantastic goaltender. But at the end of the day, it was a big win for this team.”
Saros got a piece of Scheifele’s shot, but it bounced off the post and into the net behind him during the second period when the Jets outshot Nashville 20-5.
“You don’t really have much time to think when so many shots come against you,” Saros said. “They spent quite a bit of time in our zone there, so you just try to see the puck as well as you can.”
The second period proved to be the difference.
“Certainly, we kind of got hemmed in our own zone in the second period,” said Preds defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “We didn’t generate much in the o-zone and that probably wore on us. But, at the end of the day, it was one goal going into the third. We liked our spot and we certainly would have liked to have gotten one early, as opposed to them.
“But give them credit, they played a fast game and didn’t make too many mistakes. It was a hard-fought game.”
But they are still in the thick of things.
“This group is resilient,” said Nashville coach John Hynes. “We always respond. It’s taking the lessons out of this game. This didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, but we’re still hunting, we’re still going to put pressure on this team.
“There are certain areas that we need to be better in. We will be better in. We always respond the right way. We need to rest up, rejuvenate tomorrow and be ready for Monday.”
Winnipeg forward Kyle Connor need one point to become the fifth player in Jets/Atlanta Thrashers history to accomplish multiple 80-point seasons. He also needs two assists to hit 50 on the season for the first time. … Mark Scheifele is the sixth player in franchise history to score at least 40 goals. … The Predators played without injured forwards Philip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Cole Smith and Jusso Parssinen, as well as injured defencemen Roman Josi, Alexandre Carrier and Jeremy Lauzon.
Jets: Host the San Jose Sharks on Monday.
Predators: Play in Calgary against the Flames on Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2023.
Jim Bender, The Canadian Press