Associated Press

The Buzzer: Capitals near curse’s end, Connor breaks out against Predators

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Saturday’s results

Washington Capitals 6, Pittsburgh Penguins 3 (Capitals lead series 3-2): Pittsburgh held leads early in the first and at the start of the third period but blew them both as the Capitals put themselves within striking distance of the Eastern Conference Final. Jakub Vrana led the way for the Capitals, scoring the game-winner and adding two helpers. Braden Holtby stood tall, making a remarkable save prior to Vrana’s goal, while shutting the door on 36 of Pittsburgh’s 39 shots.

Winnipeg Jets 6, Nashville Predators 2 (Jets lead series 3-2): If you watch the first period, you’d have thought Nashville was in the driver’s seat. And they were, until the second period at least. Then Kyle Connor and the Winnipeg Jets got going and nothing stopped them. Connor scored twice, Connor Hellebuyck stood tall and the Jets head back to Winnipeg with a chance to put themselves into the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday.

Three stars

Kyle Connor, Jets: Connor led the league in rookie goal scoring with 31 markers during the regular season but hadn’t scored in nine playoff games. He picked a good time to start on Saturday, notching two goals and setting up Mark Scheifele with a filthy pass for a three-point night.

Jakub Vrana, Capitals: A little promotion never hurt anyone… well, except the Penguins. Vrana got a bump up to Washington’s top line and immediately made the most of the opportunity with the game-winning goal and two assists, including one on the third-period marker that tied the game.

Blake Wheeler, Jets: Three assists, including a beauty to set up Connor’s second of the game. Wheeler had the wherewithal to know he had no chance of scoring on the play and found Connor coming into the slot. He found him, the Jets scored. C’est la vie.

Highlights

This pass:

This save, and then the goal:

Kuznetsov’d:

Factoids

Saturday night’s all right for rookies:

Sunday’s schedule

Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (NBC) — Lightning lead series 3-1

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN) — Golden Knights lead series 3-2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets’ Connor goes off, pushes Predators to the brink

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Few can stop the Winnipeg Jets once they get going.

And so while the Nashville Predators — the NHL’s best team in the regular season and a team with arguably the best defensive corps in all the land — seem to have the tools necessary for cessation, they simply, like many other teams, couldn’t stop the boulder that is the Jets offense once it dislodged from its standstill.

Now, the Jets are on the verge of the Western Conference Final with a 6-2 win on Saturday and will have a chance to close out the series with the backing of the Whiteout in Winnipeg on Monday night.

Saturday’s game will be referred to be Jets fans (and begrudgingly by Predators fans) as the Kyle Connor Show, and for good reason.

Connor paced all rookies in goal-scoring this season but hadn’t found the back of the net in nine playoff games coming into Saturdays’ tilt.

The Michigan product made sure that streak didn’t extend to 10, picking a great time to pot not just his first career playoff goal, but also his second as the Jets found the back of the net four times in the second period.

Winnipeg’s onslaught began with Paul Stastny standing in front of the net and allowing Patrik Laine to wire a wrist shot off him into the back of the net. It was briefly halted by Yannick Weber but resumed shortly thereafter with both of Connor’s goals bookmarking Dustin Byfuglien‘s fourth of the playoffs.

Connor showed he can do more than score, making Ryan Johansen just a pawn in his game with one of the filthier moves of the playoffs.

Pekka Rinne received a mercy pull for the second time in the series after allowing six goals on 26 shots. He can’t take all of the blame — Nashville’s defense on the night was porous at best — but he needs more performances like Game 4 if the Predators are going to force Game 7.

Fellow Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck bailed the Jets out in the first period as the Predators pushed for an opener and finished with 38 saves.

Monday night’s Whiteout in Winnipeg is going to be next-level.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flying under the radar: Kyle Connor’s rookie season has been quietly impressive

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Tucked away behind Blake Wheeler’s career season, Patrik Laine’s 43 goals and Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina-type season is Kyle Connor’s impressive rookie campaign.

I’d be open to suggestions, but you’d be hard-pressed to show me another rookie having a more impressive season than Connor is that is also seemingly flying under the radar in the National Hockey League.

Up until about week ago, no one outside of Winnipeg was talking about the former Hobey Baker runner-up. And there’s a good reason for that given that Laine was doing things that, historically, no teenager had ever done.

“Everything goes under the radar when you play for Winnipeg,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler this past Tuesday. “He’s been one of the huge X-factors for our team. Him stepping into our lineup and contributing at the rate he’s contributed at, it’s a huge reason why we sit where we are today. He was a got that you had high hopes for coming into the year, but obviously a little bit of a question mark. You didn’t really know what you were going to get. He’s taken the opportunity that he’s got this year and done a great job.”

Connor, like he has all season, just carried on working in the shadows of others. Piling up the goals until there was no choice but to take notice at what he’s doing.

Connor’s 28 goals are just one goal back of Brock Boeser for the rookie goal-scoring lead, something that Connor should surpass before the end of the season given his recent success in that department. He’s second the Jets with five game-winners.

“It’s nice to have the coach have confidence in you,” Connor said. “To be able to go out there and try to make something happen and get a chance for game-winnernner.”

Connor is picking up 1.8 primary points per 60 minutes played and his goals-per-60 is sitting at 1.3.

He also has a little streak going for himself, with two overtime goals in the Jets past two games, becoming the second rookie ever to accomplish the quirky feat.

And he’s done so by using his speed to create space for himself in open ice.

There’s not much of a case to be made for Connor and the Calder — that belongs to Mathew Barzal. But Connor should be in the conversation, if only for the recognition of what he’s done.

Unlike the Barzals, the Boesers and the Kellers and the Gourdes, Connor didn’t begin the season with the big club. Instead, the 21-year-old former Michigan Wolverine didn’t make the grade for the opening day roster out of training camp. He was just mediocre. And with a team oozing with offensive talent, mediocre wasn’t going to cut it.

Connor, banished to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, played four games for the Jets farmhand, collecting three goals and five points, before his stay across the hall at Bell MTS Place came to an abrupt end.

Injuries to Adam Lowry, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault meant the Jets needed some reinforcements, so Winnipeg recalled Connor on Oct. 16.

He hasn’t looked back since.

HockeyViz.com

Connor’s recalled came with a period spent playing with Bryan Little and Laine before he was promoted to the top line.

It hadn’t worked out with Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers on the top unit, and moving other pieces meant a cascading effect and a lot of line juggling. If Connor could fill in the void, the Jets could concentrate on getting their other three lines right.

So there was a chance and a challenge: prove he can keep up with the relentless pace of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and you’ll stay right where you’re at.

Connor obliged.

Outside of a few hiccups — dropping down to the third and fourth lines at times — Connor has become an important piece on Winnipeg’s top line — a shifty player with a knack for finding enough space in front to get a quality scoring opportunity.

“He’s awesome. He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said after Connor’s game-winner on Friday. “He goes to the right spots. He battles hard in the corner, he goes to the right areas, he goes to the dirty areas. He does everything so well and obviously, his knack for scoring is top notch. He’s been really fun to play with this season. It’s exciting to see him grow like that.”

Connor has exploded for six goals in his past eight games, but it’s perhaps what he learned in an eight-game drought prior that’s played an important role in what he’s been doing lately.

“So, he’s played a lot of good games, but the game in Carolina, he doesn’t score, plays exceptionally well and I think he was really working hard all that stretch, he had that little block there where he wasn’t scoring,” Maurice said on Friday. “He seems to me that he’s relaxed a little bit when the puck is on his stick. Confidence for any player is such an important thing and can’t be given to anybody, you get one and then all the sudden you get that good feeling and then you attach that good feeling to some really good play. He’d been playing very, very well and not scoring, so he wasn’t very far off it and a little bit of confidence and away he goes.”

The only real pressure on Connor is what he puts on himself in Winnipeg. There’s enough heavy lifting happening, so Connor has had the freedom of figuring out his game and what works.

“Well, you can never be too comfortable in this league,” Connor said. “Something I learned through this year is you’ve got to bring it every day. You’ve got to prove yourself. I think I’m getting more confident every game I play but I don’t think I’m too comfortable. You come to the rink and you’ve got to prove yourself.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Should Winnipeg Jets stand pat at trade deadline?

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There are whispers that the Winnipeg Jets could stand pat at the trade deadline and get away with it.

It’s not necessarily the most popular opinion, but one that has gained a small following given how their season has shaped up to this point.

The growth of rookie forward Kyle Connor, who scored his 21st goal of the season on Sunday, has been impressive. Connor went from a mediocre training camp that saw him begin the season in the American Hockey League to play a vital role on Winnipeg’s top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

Jack Roslovic began the season in the AHL and was only called up recently to fill in the gaps as Winnipeg’s health began to deteriorate. Now, Roslovic, a dynamic player with speed and play-making ability, has performed so well that he likely won’t see the minors again.

The Jets are also anticipating the return of towering center Adam Lowry (out with an upper-body injury) and defenseman Jacob Trouba (out with a lower-body injury) by the time the playoffs roll around, turning into quasi-trade deadline additions.

The Jets, who have scored 13 goals in their past two games, are as good as any other team in the league when they’re firing on all cylinders. A recent adjustment to their lines — one that included putting 20-plus goal scorers Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine on the third unit — has diversified Winnipeg’s top-nine to a scary extent.

The Jets have three lines that are capable, at the moment, of putting up a lot of points on any given night. So the argument that the Jets don’t need to add someone to their top-six, or even their top-nine, has some merit.

That said, as the old sports cliche goes: there’s always room to improve. The Jets could still use some depth on the fourth line. Matt Hendricks, while a good presence in the room and a decent penalty killer, isn’t the quickest player on the ice. Joel Armia shows flashes of brilliance and then goes on long stretches where he’s mostly invisible. The return of Brandon Tanev from injury will be useful in that regard. But adding a budget center could be the shrewd move general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to solidify a solid fourth-line combo.

On defense, Ben Chiarot has played admirably in place of Trouba but he may be a surplus to requirements when Trouba returns. One wonders what Cheveldayoff is thinking when it comes to Toby Enstrom, however. The diminutive defenseman had a tough outing in the physical department during the Jets last playoff appearance — their only visit since returning to Winnipeg — during the 2014-15 season. And his injury history should have the Jets thinking about at least shoring up that possibility.

The Jets could turn to Chiarot’s size and physicality in a similar scenario or could turn to the trade market for another option.

This is a good headache for any general manager. The Jets are one of the top teams in the NHL without having made a trade thus far this season.

Their goaltending has been spectacular, their power play has been lethal and their penalty kill is up near the top. Bell MTS Place has become a place teams go to die and the Jets, at the moment, would have home-ice advantage in the first round.

It makes for an interesting week leading up to Monday’s trade deadline.

Here’s a look at what the Jets could be/are considering:

Forwards

Rick Nash: A pricey rental player that would add size and scoring to the Jets top-six. But pricey is the key word here and it’s unlikely the Jets want to dig into the farm to own a guy for a couple months.

Mike Hoffman: Skilled and quick with the ability to score. He would be a good fit for the Jets, but as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on the weekend, Hoffman has a limited no-movement clause and Winnipeg is on the list. With term left on his deal, the price wouldn’t be cheap either.

Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu: Two depth forwards that would bolster Winnipeg’s bottom end. Maroon isn’t the fastest guy around, and he’s not scoring 27 goals like he did last season playing with Connor McDavid. But a fresh start after not getting a contract in Edmonton might be just what Maroon needs to get his confidence up and running. Letestu, meanwhile, offers bottom-six depth up the middle. Matt Hendricks, currently occupying the fourth-line center role, didn’t play in last year’s playoffs for the Oilers. He could make way again depending on what the Jets do at the deadline. These would be cheaper options.

Ryan Hartman: It would be odd for the Chicago Blackhawks to trade a 23-year-old budding forward to a divisional rival, but stranger things have happened. Hartman had 19 goals in his rookie season last year and is playing on a very poor Blackhawks team this year. The price tag is likely high on him as well.

Mats Zuccarello: The New York Rangers announced they were holding a yard sale, and Zuccarello is a name that’s been thrown around when it comes to the Jets. Zuccarello is a good penalty killer and plays a game, not unlike Mathieu Perreault, who the Jets covet. Zuccarello also comes with an extra year on his contract. and could help the Jets beyond this season.

Defenseman:

Nick Holden: Continuing with the Rangers fire sale, Holden could be an option. He’s a left shot defenseman that could fill in for an injury to Enstrom. Holden’s possession metrics don’t jump off the page, but he’s a serviceable third-pairing guy who can play bigger minutes in a pinch.

Jan Rutta: One player the Blackhawks may be willing to part ways with is defenseman Rutta, who is on a one-year entry-level deal that’s set to expire at the end of this season. Rutta shoots right and has better possession metrics than Holden.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Johnson’s hatty, Kane’s 5-point night, Laine hits 100

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Players of the Night:

Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning: He may not get the same recognition as guys with the last name of Stamkos or Kucherov, but Johnson has 16 goals on the season now after a hat-trick in a 5-4 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks: Kane had a goal and four assists for the Blackhawks, who dropped eight goals on the lowly Ottawa Senators in an 8-2 win.

Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers: Trocheck continued his fine season on Tuesday, grabbing two goals and pitching in an assist in a 7-4 win for the Panthers over the St. Louis Blues.

Highlights of the Night:

Tyler Johnson’s hat-trick goal came after quite the individual effort:

Kyle Connor‘s goal was pretty filthy:

Mike Smith and Mikael Granlund had quite the battle on Tuesday:

Factoids of the Night:

Patrik Laine put his name among Finnish greats tonight:

Not so boring, eh?

https://twitter.com/PR_NHL/status/950950069418721286

MISC:

Scores:

Jets 7, Sabres 4

Capitals 3, Canucks 1

Blackhawks 8, Senators 2

Lightning 5, Senators 4

Panthers 7, Blues 4

Predators 2, Oilers 1

Flames 3, Wild 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck