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Wheeler's late goal gives Jets win over Predators

Kyle Connor scored the other for Winnipeg; Hellebuyck makes 33 saves

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick /

WINNIPEG - What a way to go out.

After 174 days, 116 practices and game-day skates, 59 flights and hundreds of bus rides, it all came down to this.

And Game 82 did not disappoint.

Blake Wheeler scored a shorthanded goal with just 44.6 seconds left to vault the Jets to a 2-1 victory in the season finale at MTS Centre.

On a 2-on-1 with Mark Scheifele, Wheeler took a pass and broke in alone, hoisting a backhander over Nashville Pekka Rinne for his 26th of the year. With the assist, Scheifele finishes with 82 points in 79 games - his first-career point-per-game campaign.

"I saw Ellis was kind of flat-footed and I know Scheif was coming up with speed. I just left the puck for him and we were off to the races," Wheeler said. "The chemistry that we've formed over these last couple years it's a pretty special feeling. We were knocking on the door all game, and what a play he made to send me in. That one felt good."

Video: NSH@WPG: Wheeler gives Jets late lead with SHG

Wheeler finishes with 74 points (26G, 48A) after playing in all 82 games in his first year as captain.

The fact that he scored the winner after the year he had, the figurehead and ultimate spokesperson for this team's growth over year, speaks volumes about his character and leadership.

There is simply no one more deserving to wear the 'C,' and Winnipeg should be darn proud of him.

"He just pushed himself and did a remarkable job bringing the kids in and being an example for those kids," said Head Coach Paul Maurice. "It was nice for him to get the last one and to have it be meaningful in the situation that we're in.

"I've had a list of pretty good captains, some Hall of Fame players [like] Ron Francis, Mats Sundin, Rod Brind'Amour… The job that he did was as good as any job I've ever seen."

Video: POSTGAME | Paul Maurice

The winning goal came after Kyle Connor evened things up earlier in the period, as the Jets took back the game after a so-so second, outshooting the Preds 15-6.

Connor tied the game with 9:13 to play, scoring in his first game back after spending the past few months with the Jets' AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, where he became of the team's most deadly offensive weapons.

After picking off a pass in the neutral zone and turning the play back the other way, Connor took a beautiful feed from Adam Lowry, raced in alone and buried a shot under the blocker of Rinne for his second of the year and first in 13 games.

"It was just a fun game to be a part of and it feels good to contribute," Connor said. "I came in late at the end of the season, but it just shows you how there's no quit in this locker room."

Video: NSH@WPG: Lowry, Connor connect on give-and-go

Connor Hellebuyck was excellent in goal, stopping 33 shots in the win to improve his record to 26-19-4.

With the win, the Jets finish the 2016-17 campaign on a franchise record seven-game winning streak and with a record of 40-35-7 for 87 points - a nine-point improvement over last year.

"It's been an up-and-down season, obviously, and there's been a lot of frustration, but if you look at the guys we have in our room, the amount of talent we have on the ice now, you have to think our group is knocking on the door," Wheeler said. "The city of Winnipeg should take a lot of pride in the fact that their team didn't quit. There are teams in this league that gave up down the stretch when they were out of it and we certainly did not. That means more than the wins. They're great, and it makes it enjoyable to come to the rink in a bad situation, but just being involved in games and being in the fight with that group of guys…that's what you build the right things with."

Video: POSTGAME | Blake Wheeler

Ryan Ellis drew first blood for the Preds with a shorthanded goal at 11:31 of the second period. Bryan Little coughed it up in the neutral zone and then blew a tire as he went to give chase, giving the D man a long, clear-cut breakaway. In alone, Ellis made a quick move in tight and put a slippery shot through the five-hole to give Nashville a 1-0 lead.  

The goal came just moments after the Preds killed a lengthy 5-on-3, as Chris Thorburn and Dustin Byfuglien were penalized 48 seconds apart.

Viktor Arvidsson looked to put visitors up by two on a power play late in the middle frame, but after crashing the net and shovelling home a loose puck, Hellebuyck and the Jets made a case for goaltender interference after Arvidsson bowled his way through the blue paint.

The play was reviewed, but after a lengthy conference between the officials and the Situation Room in Toronto, the original call (no goal) was upheld and it remained a 1-0 game.

The Jets were the better team in the first, outshooting the Preds 14-7. But Nashville dominated the middle frame, putting up 21 shots to Winnipeg's half-dozen.

Hellebuyck was the difference, and he gets to head into the summer feeling good about his game.

Video: POSTGAME | Connor Hellebuyck

"I learned so much (this year)," he said. "There's a difference between being ready for the NHL and making a difference. I can see that now and I really have a focus now on what I need to improve on.

"We care. We care about every single game no matter what the circumstance is. The way the fans got into it in the third, it was just a special feeling."

- Ryan Dittrick,

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