Spring may have sprung but a whiteout is coming soon to Winnipeg.
The Jets ensured at least two more home games this season by taking down the Wild 3-1 in Minnesota Tuesday night, clinching a playoff spot for the sixth time since relocating from Atlanta.*
“It’s phenomenal,” said goalie Connor Hellebuyck. “It feels great in here. We did it as a team and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. Now I look forward to our next step.
“I think we battled our adversity. It might have took us a little bit longer, but I think we figured ourselves out. ”
After missing the post-season dance a year ago, the Jets are going back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
“Things weren’t going very well for us for awhile,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “And we dug ourselves out of a hole. We found a way to get on a winning streak.
“We just fought through it. Every team that gets into the playoffs at this time of year and you’re in the bottom end, you have to fight through some adversity, you got to fight through some second-guessing, and that’s fine.”
Hellebuyck made a number of spectacular saves, including a brilliant one in the dying minutes, and he finished with 33 stops to propel the Jets back to the post-season.
“I think that game should have won him the Vezina (Trophy),” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele. “He’s our most valuable player. We wouldn’t be where we are without him. He’s been amazing.”
The Jets are rolling now with three straight victories and wins in five of their last six games overall entering the now meaningless season finale on Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche.
“We’ve battled hard the last little while to get back to being in the playoffs,” said Scheifele. “Obviously, we wish we would have stayed at the top, but that happens, and everything happens for a reason.”
With the Jets leading in the third period, the game took a physical turn after Ryan Reaves drove Dylan DeMelo into the boards from behind.
Ryan Hartman then knocked Nikolaj Ehlers out of the game with a hit in the neutral zone, which was soon followed by a five-minute major penalty for cross-checking against Neal Pionk.
It all came to a head with 26 seconds left when Reaves and Adam Lowry squared off to fight.
“They got really dirty,” said Hellebuyck. “I don’t know why. We were playing hard. I guess they were playing hard too, but they were getting a little unnecessary. I think maybe the refs let it get a little out of control, but that’s playoff hockey right there.”
“We’ve shown all year long that if you go after one of us, you’re going after all of us,” Bowness said. “And we have no problem. They can throw everything they can at us and we’re going to stick up for ourselves, and we’re going to fight through everything.”
Ehlers didn’t return to the game in the final eight minutes after the check by Hartman.
“He’s in a vulnerable position. He is. And you hate to see those hits.” said Bowness. “He’s going to be reassessed right now. We’ll find out more a little bit later.”
Needing just one point to secure the second wild card spot in the West, the Jets got on the board early in a place where they have not won since 2019.
Nino Niederreiter collected the puck in the slot, fired it on goal and the puck bounced to Lowry at the side of the crease to put the Jets in front just 3:53 into the period.
Minnesota carried the edge in shots on goal but Winnipeg doubled their lead with just under seven minutes left in the first with a goal that resembled the opening tally.
This time it was Nate Schmidt sending it towards Marc-Andre Fleury. The puck ricocheted to Scheifele at the side of the net just below the goal line and the Jets leading goal scorer knocked it from behind the net and batted it out of the air to make it 2-0.
The Wild got an excellent chance to get on the board when Winnipeg took two penalties late in the period but they could not make it happen on the 5-on-3.
Minnesota held a 12-4 edge in shots on goal after 20 minutes but Winnipeg turned that around in a fairly tight second period, outshooting the home side 11-4 in the middle frame.
In the period, the Jets whiffed on a pair of power play opportunities while Hellebuyck had to make some great saves to keep Winnipeg in front 2-0 after 40 minutes.
With a playoff spot squarely in sight, the Jets just needed to get to the end of regulation without allowing more than two goals.
But the Wild made clear early in the third that it wasn’t going to be easy.
Lowry was called for hooking Connor Dewar just 24 seconds into the third as Dewar rang the puck off the crossbar, and on the ensuing power play the Wild poured pressure on goal.
Hellebuyck made several great saves and Minnesota hit another post before Kirill Kaprizov scored his 40th of the season off a juicy rebound.
As the Wild continued to put pressure on the Jets, the game began to devolve into chaos. Reaves hit DeMelo from behind, sending the blueliner dangerously into the end boards but no call was made.
A couple of minutes later, Hartman blasted an unsuspecting Ehlers in the neutral zone with a big hit but Ehlers did not have the puck. Hartman was given a two minute minor.
With just shy of six minutes to go, the Jets got a massive insurance goal from their depth players.
Morgan Barron made a great backcheck to stop a Wild chance before Kevin Stenlund got the puck ahead for Barron who made a hard drive into the Minnesota end. He was forced to the corner but he managed to send a soft pass to the slot where Mason Appleton was waiting to deposit the puck past Fleury.
With the game out of reach in the final minute, Neal Pionk was given a cross-checking major, Brenden Dillon and Hartman went off for slashing and then Lowry dropped the gloves with Reaves before the final horn sounded.
Hellebuyck was outstanding in helping the Jets earn the critical two points, turning aside 33 shots, including 17 in the third. He made several incredible point-blank saves to keep his team in front, the kind of performance that, if he keeps it up, can carry a team deep into the playoffs.
Who the Jets will face in round 1 remains up in the air as of the posting of this article. They still have one regular season game remaining Thursday night in Denver, a game that matters not to Winnipeg but will for the Avalanche who are fighting for the Central division crown. It’s a 7 p.m. puck drop with pregame coverage starting at 5 p.m. on 680 CJOB.
*The NHL considers Winnipeg’s loss to Calgary in the qualifying round in the bubble in 2020 to be a playoff appearance.
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