Connor's three-point night pushes Jets to win over Sabres
"What's transformed him into one of the elite players in the league is his compete in and out of every shift." -Wheelerby Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com
WINNIPEG - Kyle Connor hit a new career-high in goals on Tuesday night, but he wasn't thinking about that when it happened.
All he wanted was a win - and the Winnipeg Jets (34-28-6) got that too.
Connor scored twice and added an assist in a 3-1 Jets win over the Buffalo Sabres to open a three-game home stand, and push the Jets back into a playoff spot at the same time.
Blake Wheeler finished with two assists in the game - one on each of Connor's goals - and said the growth in his linemate's game over the last three seasons isn't anything that would be found on the score sheet.
"What's transformed him into one of the elite players in the league is his compete in and out of every shift. There aren't any lulls in Kyle's game anymore," said Wheeler. "When he got sent down that first year, he had to learn that real quick. In this league, if you want to get around that net and get those opportunities, it's going to take a certain pace. He's gotten to that pace."
Now Connor has three consecutive 30-goal seasons and has set new career highs in goals, assists, and points with 14 games to go on the schedule.
Head coach Paul Maurice always saw the skill Connor possessed, but that consistent work ethic - in Maurice's mind - was engrained one night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"The game where he had his 'ah ha' moment, he didn't get a point, it was in Carolina. All he did was work. Nothing was going for the guy, he couldn't get a break, but he figured out 'all I have to do is work really hard,'" Maurice said. "The next night he started scoring and he took off."
Connor took off in a full sprint to help the Jets open the scoring against the Sabres as well. His 34th of the season - which ties his career-high from last season - started when a puck got by Buffalo defenceman Jake McCabe at the Jets blue line. Wheeler took off chasing it down the right-wing side, caught up to it near the right-wing face-off dot, and fed Connor who was streaking toward the opposite post.
"We know each other, we're pretty familiar, and we've been playing together on and off for the last couple years," Connor said of his line. "We know where each other is going to be in certain spots. That's where the chemistry comes. The bottom line is we're trying to outwork, that's our foundation. Doing the little things right, and if we see a play, all three of us have that type of skill set to be able to make it and finish."
Video: POSTGAME | Blake Wheeler
Tucker Poolman made it 2-0 for the home side with 3:55 to go in the first. His third goal of the season came shorthanded, as the Jets rushed up the ice. Poolman drove to the front of the net and deflected a pass from Connor past Hutton to increase Winnipeg's lead.
Connor capitalized on Winnipeg's first power play opportunity early in the second, when he buried a rebound off a Mark Scheifele one-timer for his second of the night, and a 3-0 Jets lead.
While those points came on the power play, the trio of Scheifele, Wheeler, and Connor has now combined for seven goals, 15 points, and 34 shots on goal since being reunited in the second period against the Washington Capitals on February 27.
Buffalo got on the board with 9:26 to go in the second, when Rasmus Ristolainen wrapped around the Winnipeg net and sent the puck to the front of the net. It banked off one of Connor Hellebuyck's legs and in, making the score 3-1.
Video: POSTGAME | Paul Maurice
But that's as close as Buffalo would get, as Hellebuyck finished with 25 saves. The Jets as a group also managed to keep Jack Eichel off the score sheet. That task was handled by Scheifele's line as well.
"I would have to complement Mark Scheifele's defensive game tonight," said Maurice. "That's a lot to handle. Jack Eichel is an elite player, he's also maturing physically so he's stronger on the puck and he's always had those incredible hands.
"Against skilled lines like that, Scheifs is the best answer."
Whether Connor likes it or not, he's inching closer to another milestone. His three points give him 198 in his career. Of those, 96 are assists, meaning he'll soon hit 200 career points and 100 career assists.
He has steadily built his game since earning a recall from the Manitoba Moose on October 16, 2017.
From that date, he's been an NHL regular - and an elite one at that.
"To compete, that's been the foundation for me as a player throughout my whole career growing up," he said.
"I think it's more of a consistency factor that it's a grind, the NHL game. It's 82 games plus playoffs. The best players bring it every single night. That's what makes good players great."