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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/05/2018 (1860 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NASHVILLE — Maybe it was that night in late October in downtown Winnipeg when the Jets roasted the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins 7-1. And, the captain himself led the way with a hat-trick.
Maybe it was New Year’s Eve when five different players hit the mark and goalie Connor Hellebuyck posted his third shutout of December in a 5-0 triumph over the Edmonton Oilers.
Perhaps, it was late February when Winnipeg posted consecutive road wins over two division rivals, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, and then GM Kevin Cheveldayoff acquired veteran centre Paul Stastny from the Blues just days later.
Or, it might have been the third week of March when rookie rifleman Kyle Connor scored overtime winners in back-to-back duels with the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
Blake Wheeler honestly doesn’t remember precisely when it happened — only that there was that moment of enlightenment.
“I can’t remember anything specifically. But it definitely happened at some point when I knew that we had a legitimate team,” said Wheeler, in conversation Sunday morning before the Jets soared out of Nashville just one victory away from advancing to the NHL’s Western Conference final.
“Obviously, once we traded for (Stastny), that solidified it and made you think that we had a pretty special group. But that being said, you go into the playoffs with the second-best record in the league, it doesn’t mean anything. Clean slate, you start over. All we were excited about was we had an opportunity, we were in the mix and it gave us a chance.”
The chance to clinch the best-of-seven, second-round playoff series and finally rid themselves of the mighty Predators comes tonight at Bell MTS Place. Game time is 8:30 p.m.
After an off-key first period, the Jets hit all the right notes Saturday night in Music City, scoring four second-period goals in a 6-2 beat-down of the Predators.
Wheeler, who tied for the league lead in regular-season assists (68), set up three goals, including the first two post-season goals of Connor’s career.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice reunited Connor with Wheeler and centre Mark Scheifele, and the unit combined for eight points. He had skated with Stastny and Patrik Laine for parts of Game 3 and all of Game 4, a 2-1 loss in Winnipeg last Thursday.
After a period dominated by the Predators, Stastny sparked the Jets with his fourth of the playoffs to open the scoring at 7:44 of the second period. Dustin Byfuglien wired his fourth from the point, Scheifele added his team-leading ninth and Mathieu Perreault, who returned to the lineup after injurying his shoulder in Game 1 of Round 1 against the Minnesota Wild, chipped in with his first.
Hellebuyck’s brilliant play through 20 minutes prevented Nashville from getting the early jump and allowed his teammates to find their legs. He finished with 38 saves, lowering his post-season goals-against average to 2.29 and upping his save percentage to .925.
Blessed with a healthy squad, Maurice utilized a full complement of four solid lines and three reliable defensive pairing, generously spreading the minutes around, while Preds coach Peter Laviolette was compelled to shorten his bench once the Jets built a 4-2 lead through 40 minutes.
That well-balanced, win-by-committee approach is the hallmark of a Jets squad meticulously constructed since 2011, beginning with a few integral parts like Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little and slowly bolstered by way of the NHL Draft to become a legitimate championship contender.
It was Wheeler, most will recall, who had set the bar for the team before training even began, had proclaiming it was ‘playoffs or bust.’
Now, it sounds like Wheeler recognized, perhaps, he’d underestimated the results the club could generate.
“You never want to get too far ahead of yourself. We started having some success, and when it’s a little bit new to your group you don’t know if it’s real, if it’s a one-off or if it’s sustainable. We started having sustainable success and guys were playing really well. We were starting to put together some pretty good runs,” he said.
“We knew that we had a real group, that our team was real, that we weren’t just a flash in the pan or we were going to have a good month and then go away. That’s what gave us confidence.”
Wisely, Wheeler offered no guarantee against a dangerous Nashville lineup, but said the Jets are full value for positioning themselves to advance.
“We’re expecting their best game of the season,” he said of the desperate Predators, who lost the 2017 final to the Penguins but stormed back to post a league-best 53-18-11 regular-season record and capture the Presidents’ Trophy. “But we haven’t worried about the other team all year. We’re not starting to worry about the other team now.
“We’re extremely excited about our opportunity. Like I said, we’re full-on expecting to play our best game of the season.”
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Monday, May 7, 2018 6:04 AM CDT: Adds photo