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This article was published 27/4/2018 (1267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NASHVILLE — Connor Hellebuyck has already racked up several honours this season: franchise-record in wins; most wins in a season by an American-born goaltender; Vezina Trophy nomination.
He can now add committing what appears to be grand larceny on the biggest stage of his career to that impressive and ever-expanding list.
Hellebuyck made 47 saves Friday night as the Winnipeg Jets beat the Nashville Predators 4-1 to take Game 1 of their second-round playoff series in enemy territory and steal home-ice advantage.
"I just love playoffs. I love the intensity, I love the game in front of me. It’s awesome and a little different. Intense is the right way to put it," Hellebuyck said following the game.
Hellebuyck posted back-to-back shutouts last week to close out the Minnesota Wild, then carried that momentum into this series despite a week-long break between action. He went exactly 163 minutes between goals, a 12-day span that saw him swat away 98 straight pucks in the process.
"He was awesome. They were throwing everything at the net. What we were trying to do in front of him was just get bodies, get sticks, let him see things. You could tell early on if he was seeing the puck he was going to make the stops," said captain Blake Wheeler.
Hellebuyck said the week-long break did his body, and mind, some good and there was no worry about rust.
"For me, no. I like the rest. I like getting a little feel on the ice and just getting off. That feeds well into my game. Build the body back up, get the little tweaks out of there and then you’re ready to play," he said.
At the other end of the rink, Winnipeg chased fellow Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne after two periods by scoring three times on just 16 shots.
Buoyed by a raucous hometown crowd, the league’s top regular-season team rode the wave from the opening puck drop by dominating play during the first period. Yet it was Winnipeg that struck first with just over five minutes left in the period. Bryan Little made a nifty play to linemate Brandon Tanev, who patiently slid the puck past Rinne.
With Joel Armia injured, Jets head coach Paul Maurice tweaked his bottom-six for the game. Little skated on the wing with Tanev and centre Adam Lowry, while Andrew Copp centred a trio with Matt Hendricks and rookie Jack Roslovic.
The shots were 20-4 Nashville through 20 minutes, yet Winnipeg took the lead into the locker room.
"We weren’t at our best, I’ll give you that. We can play better and I think we will as this series goes on. But we pay our goaltender, too," said Maurice.
Winnipeg has now scored the first goal in 10 straight games dating back to the regular season, including all six playoff contests.
It was much the same story through the bulk of the middle frame, but once again Hellebuyck stood tall. Nashville outshot Winnipeg 16-12 yet found themselves down three goals.
Midway through the second, Nikolaj Ehlers used his speed on the rush and fed Patrik Laine, whose shot hit Rinne in the mask. Paul Stastny then buried the rebound.
The Predators came close late in the middle frame as Filip Forsberg rang a shot off the post on the power play. And just seconds after killing off a Wheeler goalie interference penalty, Mark Scheifele ripped a wrister past Rinne.
"I guess that’s how hockey goes, right? Hit a post at one end, capitalize at the other. I guess that was the key tonight," said Hellebuyck.
Juuse Saros was in goal to start the third period for the Predators. And Nashville finally got one by Hellebuyck just 1:23 in, as Kevin Fiala buried a rebound.
Scheifele sealed the victory with an empty-net goal in the final minute, his team-leading sixth of the playoffs.
"There’s no steals in playoffs. If you win, you win. It wasn’t pretty. It probably wasn’t how we drew it up. But we got the win and that’s the main focus," said Scheifele. "Obviously Helly played an unbelievable game for us."
Maurice said there was no panic in his troops, either early in the game when they were under siege, or after Nashville cut the deficit to two with nearly the entire third period remaining.
"We have to earn a better game. We have to work a little harder. I don’t feel as overwhelmed as the stats should tell me I should. I’m usually pretty honest about that, I’m not trying to protect the group. It’s their building, they had the jump early. They put an awful lot of pucks to the net from all over the ice. We can handle the net-front scrums a little bit better. I’m not worried about those stats," Maurice said of the lopsided shot totals.
Nashville (117 points) and Winnipeg (114) combined for 231 points in the regular season, making this a historic matchup of sorts. Teams with this many points have never met in the second round of the playoffs.
This is also just the fifth playoff series since 1990 in which the top two teams in the regular season have met.
"We have a better game to play than what we showed. Nashville played a really solid game, put a lot of pucks to the net and (Hellebuyck) made a ton of big saves and his rebound control was excellent. He’s been playing like that all year; nothing fazes him. He’s just able to replicate that night after night so I think we have a little bit better to give in front of him but he was outstanding," said defenceman Josh Morrissey.
Game 2 is set for Sunday, 6 p.m. at Bridgestone Arena before the series shifts back to Winnipeg for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday.
"You come in here and it’s a tough building to play in. It definitely gives us confidence but as we’ve seen in the last series, momentum doesn’t seem to carry over from game to game in the playoffs. Sunday night, it’s a whole new game and they’re going to be ready to go. They know how to respond. They’ve played a lot of playoff hockey. It gives us confidence but at the same time, it’ll be a sort of a whole new game on Sunday," said Morrissey.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.