The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG–Captain Blake Wheeler wasn’t certain at the beginning of the season if his Winnipeg Jets would contend for a playoff spot.
Now he has his answer.
The Jets clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 5-4 shootout win over the Nashville Predators last night.
It will be their second playoff appearance since the franchise relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
“[There was] a lot of uncertainty coming into the year, where we were going to be,” noted Wheeler, whose been with the franchise the entirety of its time in Winnipeg.
“I don’t think many people thought we were going to be where we are at, a playoff team.
“Every single guy in here has had a huge part in that,” he noted. “It’s a big moment for our team and for our organization.”
Wheeler credits a rookie–linemate Kyle Connor–as a significant factor in the club sitting in second place in the Western Conference, just five points back of first-place Nashville.
“He’s one of the single-biggest reasons why we are where we are,” Wheeler stressed. “[Connor has] put up nearly 30 goals and is a real impact player playing with Mark Scheifele and I.
“It’s quite a surprise.
“I’ve said it before but coming into the year, I didn’t really know what to expect out of him,” he admitted.
In addition to Connor’s 29th goal of the season moving him into a tie with Vancouver’s Brock Boeser for the NHL rookie goal scoring lead, the 21-year-old added two assists last night to hit the 50-point plateau.
“I think every game in this league you gain more confidence,” said Connor, who now has seven goals in Winnipeg’s last six games, including a pair of game-winners in overtime in the Jets’ previous two contests.
“It builds as the team wins and everybody is playing well,” he noted. “So that’s kind of the feeling in this room.
“[Wheeler has] meant so much to me, him and Scheifele,” Connor added. “It’s just been awesome playing with those guys.
“It’s always something new, learning every game and every practice. It’s been really fun.”
Dustin Byfuglien also scored on the power play while Bryan Little and Wheeler both added a goal and an assist for Winnipeg.
Kyle Turris, Ryan Ellis, and Viktor Arvidsson each recorded a goal and an assist for the Predators, with Roman Josi scoring their other goal.
Scheifele scored the only shootout goal for either team.
Nashville backup goalie Juuse Saros stopped 43 of the 47 shots he faced while the Predators rested their Vezina Trophy candidate goalie Pekka Rinne after playing the night before in Minnesota.
Connor Hellebuyck made 32 saves for the Jets, improving his record to 39-11-9 on the season.
“I think playoffs are a lot different, to be honest with you,” Predators’ defenceman Mattias Ekholm replied when asked about potentially meeting the Jets in the post-season.
“It’s most likely going to be the same players so I wouldn’t expect anything much different,” he noted.
“But playoffs are playoffs,” he reasoned. “I know on our part, we’re going to tighten up defensively, for sure.”
Winnipeg is 5-0-0 on its current homestand and will complete the stretch at Bell MTS Place tomorrow night against the Boston Bruins.
Elsewhere in the NHL, Anaheim topped Edmonton 5-4 (OT), Vancouver beat Dallas 4-1, Boston edged Minnesota 2-1 (OT), and Pittsburgh nipped Philadelphia 5-4 (OT).