Connor Hellebuyck was magical and the Winnipeg Jets have finally punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Tuesday night at Excel Energy Centre in St. Paul. Minn., the Jets beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1 to secure their trip to the post-season after the 81st game of the 2022-23 campaign.
“Get those white shirts out, baby,” was Blake Wheeler’s response to Tuesday’s victory.
Of course, it’s painfully obvious they wouldn’t be the celebrating, at least not yet, were it not for some amazing saves — highlight reel stuff — by their former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender.
Hellebuyck was out of this world. On a night when the front of his net was hockey’s answer to a war zone, he made saves with every part of his body, with his stick and without it and in the period, made two stops that were simply miraculous.
The Jets were outshot 34-20, but Hellebuyck was the difference as the Jets improved to 46-32-3 on the season and locked up the second Wild Card spot in the West, eliminating the Nashville Predators, the only other team that could catch them. They Jets will likely get the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Tuesday’s victory was also a credit to head coach Rick Bowness and his staff who kept it together despite a terrible March slump and coaxed, prodded and cajoled their troops into a 5-1-0 run in their last six games to reach the Sweet 16.
“You have to give the players a lot of credit,” said Bowness modestly. “Things weren’t going very well for us for a while but we dug ourselves out of a hole and got on a winning streak and you have to give the players a lot of credit for that.”
Despite the fact they appeared to come out a little flat, the Jets scored twice in the first period to build a 2-0 lead. Adam Lowry, who had a wonderful game, scored his 13th of the year at 3:53 as Nino Niederreiter and Josh Morrissey drew the assists. Then Mark Scheifele bat Marc-Andre Fleury at 13:10 for his 42nd of the season as Nate Schmidt and Pierre-Luc Dubois tallied the helpers.
After a scoreless second period, Kirill Kaprizov scored his 40th at 1:59 on the power play to make it 2-1, but after a tremendous play at his own blue line by the Jets’ Kevin Stenlund, Morgan Barron led a rush and passed to a wide-open Mason Appleton who ripped it upstairs and gave the Jets a 3-1 lead with 5:54 to play. It was Stenlund’s first assist in 40 games (his third of the season) and it could not have come at a better time.
The final 5:56 was interesting, to say the least. The Wild didn’t seem to care about winning. They just wanted to stab the Jets with their sticks and fight.
And that was, perhaps the saddest part of the game: The reaction of Wild coach Dean Evason, who sent Ryan Reaves out on the ice with 27 seconds left to do nothing other than fight. It’s hard to wrap your head around that one. Commissioner Gary Bettman claims he wants to get fighting right out of hockey, but his two officials tonight, Jean Hebert and Trevor Hanson, called the game as if they were encouraging it.
The gutless cheap shots and fights perpetrated by Evason and his two goons, Reaves and Ryan Hartman, were cheered by Hebert and Hanson who either let it all go (Reaves horrible slam-check from behind on Dylan DeMelo into the end boards and Hartman’s gutless attempt-to-injure on Nikolaj Ehlers that resulted in a lesser penalty than a late cross-check by Neal Pionk) or called penalties as if they both had big money on Minnesota to win on their betting apps.
Obviously, the officiating didn’t cost Winnipeg the game. Hellebuyck saw to that. But Hebert and Hanson should have been wearing clown makeup not NHL referee’s jerseys. Their performance combined with Evason’s classless approach to the game made a mockery of the commissioner’s monotonous, empty demands to rid the game of fighting. Frankly, the Jets would be better off if they had an old-fashioned goon in the lineup.
As it is, they have Lowry, who played brilliantly and earned second star behind Hellebuyck.
On the stats’ sheet, each team won 50 per cent of the face-offs and each team had 18 hits. The Jets went zero-for-three on the power-play while Minnesota went one-for-five as Hebert and Hanson did their best to influence the outcome. They just didn’t plan for Hellebuyck’s incredible performance.
“It was obviously an outstanding performance by him tonight, clearly,” said Bowness. “In the third period, they got that early power-play goal and we were on our heels a little bit, but that’s when you need your goalie to make those timely saves. And then there was Appleton’s goal. Talk about timely goals. That’s as timely as they get.”
The best stats line of the night belonged to Neiderreiter who had an assist and was plus- one with a shot on goal, five hits and two blocked shots in 16. minutes and four seconds of ice time.
The scariest moment of the night, besides DeMelo going face-first into the end glass after Reaves’ spineless check from behind, was when Hartman stepped back and hit Ehlers who was skating without the puck just trying to back check. It was a horrible piece of work and a clear attempt to injure and it was probably successful as Ehlers left the game and the Minnesota Wild solidified their claim to the title of dirtiest team in hockey.
“We’ve shown all year that if you go after one of us, you go after all of us,” said Bowness, reacting to Minnesota’s goon show. “We have no problem with that. They can throw anything they want at us and we’re going to stick up for ourselves and we’re going to fight through everything. We have a team that sticks together and you saw it tonight.
“Our guys saw what their coach was doing out there and our guys responded. There is a good feeling in that room. They care about each other and stand up for each other.”
The Jets will wrap up the 2022-23 season on Thursday night in Denver when they take on the Colorado Avalanche at 7 p.m. CDT. It might behoove Bowness to sit out some of the starters and give the likes of Kyle Capobianco, Karson Kuhlman and Logan Stanley a shot. Connor Hellebuyck will definitely get a rest on Thursday.
In the meantime, get prepared for a White Out late next week.