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Stafford, Hellebuyck lead Jets past Predators

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

NASHVILLE, TennesseeConnor Hellebuyck continues to amaze in the injury-inflicted absence of Ondrej Pavelec.

In the busiest night of his young career, the rookie improved to 9-4 on the year with 43 saves, two-stepping his way to victory over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena.

Drew Stafford scored a pair of power-play goals to lead the way offensively as the Jets downed their Central Division rivals 4-1.

“You look back at some of the other games where we were on the opposite end of it,” Stafford said. “We’ve outshot teams quite a bit and it was kind of a rope-a-dope a little bit tonight for us, but we felt that we’ve had games swing the other way for us where we’d put up 40-plus shots and run into a hot netminder. This one, especially against a team we’re chasing in the standings, it’s a big one.”

With the win, the Jets improve to 2-2 on their season-long five-game road trip, which wraps up Thursday in Dallas. The club is now only five points back of the Predators for a wild card playoff spot, and will have a chance to further close the gap when the two teams hook up twice more later this month at MTS Centre.

The Jets opened the scoring at 10:43 after surviving an early onslaught. Stafford was the recipient of a great feed from Tyler Myers, who carried the puck end to end before delivering a backhand pass out front. Stafford made no mistake, burying the shot five-hole for his first of two on the night.

Myers continues to impressive offensively, recording eight points (3G, 5A) in his last 10 games.

Preds coach Peter Laviolette challenged the play, as it appeared Nikolaj Ehlers may have been offside on the entry, but video confirmed the Dane toed the line long enough.

The Jets, who were under siege early, had Hellebuyck to thank for the early lead. The rookie was excellent between the pipes, seeing 11 of the game’s first 13 shots, including a number of golden opportunities in tight.

Craig Smith and Colin Wilson were among those turned aside – one with the glove, and the other with the right pad – as Hellebuyck stood his ground in the blue paint. Hellebuyck, who’s now started 12 of the past 15 games, now has a .935 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average.

Shots favoured the 17-4 after one.

“That was the key to the whole night,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “That’s five (games) in eight (days) on the road. It’s a long flight from Anaheim and a two-hour time zone, so that was the hardest part of the hockey game, that first couple of minutes and they knew it. They came with an awful lot of speed and an awful lot of jump.

“That’s your goaltender. We went into Edmonton, outshot them 45-20 and didn’t come away with any points. … The goaltender can be the great equalizer for you. He can be the difference in the game and he absolutely was tonight.”

Stafford put the Jets up by two at 8:43 of the second, redirecting a Toby Enstrom point shot past Pekka Rinne on the power play. After scoring just one goal in his first 19 road games, Stafford has three in his last two games.

Hellebuyck faced 27 shots in the final two periods, and he swallowed up all but one. If there was a rebound to be had, he mopped that up, too.

“It was a fun one,” Hellebuyck said. “Anytime you get that [kind of work], it helps with the confidence. … They threw a lot of pucks to the net and that’s my kind of game.”

The Jets put this one to bed at 5:05 of the third. Off the rush, Ben Chiarot filtered a shot toward the net, and it richocheted in off the stick of Preds defenceman Mattias Ekholm.

“It feels great, especially to give us some insurance on this team,” Chiarot said. “A two-goal lead isn’t the most comfortable one, especially in this building.”

Wilson broke the shutout with 6:37 to play, but Alexander Burmistrov scored into the empty net with 30 seconds left to seal the win.

– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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