Buckle up, Winnipeg. The Whiteout is returning.
The Winnipeg Jets clinched their second playoff berth since the franchise moved from Atlanta thanks to a heart-stopping 5-4 shootout win over the Nashville Predators.
After 20 minutes, it didn’t appear that it would happen Sunday night. The Jets got off to a sluggish start, going into the first intermission down 2-0 while being outshot 15-4.
But much like the last meeting between these teams at Bell MTS Place (a tremendously entertaining 6-5 win for the Preds), this game would also be a wild roller-coaster of emotions, full of near-fights after the whistle, momentum swings and bundles of scoring chances.
Red-hot rookie Kyle Connor got the Jets on the board with his 29th goal of the season, but it was quickly answered by the Predators.
A Dustin Byfuglien power play goal followed by a Bryan Little tally evened the score before Nashville again regained the lead 4-3 heading into the third, despite the Jets outshooting their opponent 25-8 in the period.
Just under a minute into the third, captain Blake Wheeler notched his 20th of the year to even the score, sending the Jets to overtime for the third straight game.
But unlike wins over the Kings and Ducks this past week, the Jets couldn’t finish off the Central-division leaders in OT, instead pushing the game to a shootout.
The Jets’ second shooter, Mark Scheifele, got one past Juuse Saros, which turned out to be the only goal of the shootout. After Connor Hellebuyck turned aside Filip Forsberg, the Jets players poured over the bench and mobbed their goalie, and the crowd erupted in jubilation, a full-throated cheer a few notches louder than usual given what was at stake.
“Really proud of our group. A lot of uncertainty coming into the year, I don’t think many people thought we were going to be where we’re at, a playoff team,” Wheeler said postgame.
“Every single guy in here has had a huge part in that. It’s a big moment for our team and for our organization. We’re pretty excited.”
Wheeler is one of ten players on the roster that played in the 2015 playoffs for a Jets team whose journey to the postseason was much different than this year’s edition.
“Last time I think we clinched on a loss in Colorado, and we were kind of battling for the last month and a half of the season, just to scrape in,” explained Little, the only player on the 2015 Jets to score more than once in the playoffs. “This time it’s nice to have some games left to prepare and get ready, knowing that we’re going to be playing a longer season.”
The Jets don’t yet know who they will play in the first round or what position they will finish in, though it is highly likely they will finish second in the division behind Nashville.
Regardless of who the Jets face in the first round, the much of the hockey world Sunday was salivating at the potential for a Winnipeg-Nashville second round showdown.
The Jets have seven games remaining in their regular season schedule, and will attempt to sweep their six-game homestand with a win over the Boston Bruins Tuesday night.