NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Connor Hellebuyck loves what he’s seeing in his first NHL postseason, and the 24-year-old goalie is doing his best to make sure the Winnipeg Jets do much more than just stick around.
Hellebuyck made 47 saves and the Jets beat the Nashville Predators 4-1 on Friday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal between the NHL’s top teams in the regular season.
“I love the intensity, I love the game in front of me,” Hellebuyck said about the playoffs. “It’s awesome and a little different. Intense is the right way to put it.”
Not only did the teams top the standings, this series is the first between clubs with the most combined points ever before a conference finals after Nashville (117) edged Winnipeg (114) for the Presidents’ Trophy.
Both the Jets and Predators brought a Vezina finalist into this series. Hellebuyck outdueled veteran Pekka Rinne, who was pulled after the second period after giving up three goals on 16 shots. Hellebuyck, who finished off Minnesota with back-to-back shutouts, picked up where he left off a week ago.
Hellebuyck stretched his shutout streak to 163 minutes before Nashville finally scored. Coach Paul Maurice said the Jets weren’t at their best and can play better.
“But we pay our goaltender, too,” Maurice said.
Mark Scheifele scored two goals, including an empty-netter as the Jets were outshot 48-19. Brandon Tanev and Paul Stastny also scored to help the Jets – the NHL’s best home team in the regular season – steal home-ice advantage.
Kevin Fiala scored for the Predators, which had won 11 of their last 14 playoff games in Nashville. Several Predators said they thought this was perhaps their best game of the season, talk coach Peter Laviolette didn’t share.
“You give me two choices on where to be, our game or their win, I’d take the win,” Laviolette said. “It’s about winning hockey games right now.”
The Predators had the sparkling pregame show with the retractable screen dropping from the ceiling and country star Dierks Bentley singing the U.S. anthem, and a couple catfish hit the ice before the puck drop to boot. Then they pelted Hellebuyck with 15 of the first 19 shots.
Then the Jets scored the game’s first goal for a sixth straight playoff game. Tanev’s wrister beat Rinne’s outstretched right skate at 14:51 of the first.
Nashville finished the period with 20 shots, a franchise postseason record for a period, with Hellebuyck continuing his shutout streak started with consecutive shutouts to finish off Minnesota in the first round.
“He was awesome,” Jets forward Blake Wheeler said about Hellebuyck. “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.”
The Predators kept shooting away with Hellebuyck making every save, and the Jets proved very opportunistic. Stastny scored off a rebound of Patrik Laine’s shot at 9:01 of the second on Winnipeg’s ninth shot for a 2-0 lead.
Filip Forsberg, Nashville’s postseason scoring leader, hit the post on the power play with 3:31 left. The Jets killed off the penalty, and Scheifele beat Rinne with a long shot with 2:09 left in the second for a 3-0 lead that silenced the sold-out crowd.
Fiala at least helped Nashville avoid being shut out with his wrister 1:23 into the third . Not even pulling backup goalie Juuse Saros with more than 2 minutes left helped.
“For us right now, there’s a few things we have to clean up, a couple of mistakes cost us, but bounces are going to happen in a hockey game, that’s just the way it is,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. “We’ll be ready to go on Sunday. Let’s do that for the rest of the series, we’re going to be a happy bunch at the end of it.
NOTES: Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis went to the locker room after being clipped on the cheek by the skate of Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot early in the third. … Austin Watson, who had seven points in the first round for Nashville, did not return after playing 4:09 of the first period. Laviolette said an update on Watson is expected Saturday.
Game 2 is Sunday night in Nashville.
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