WINNIPEG — Captain Blake Wheeler wasn't certain at the beginning of the season if his Winnipeg Jets would contend for a playoff spot. Now he has his answer.
The Jets clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 5-4 shootout win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday. It'll be their second playoff appearance since the franchise relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
"(There was) a lot of uncertainty coming into the year, where we were going to be," said Wheeler, whose been with the franchise the entirety of its time in Winnipeg. "I don't think many people thought we were going to be where we are at, a playoff team. Every single guy in here has had a huge part in that. It's a big moment for our team and for our organization."
Wheeler credits a rookie — linemate Kyle Connor — as a significant factor in the club sitting in second place in the Western Conference, just five points back of first-place Nashville.
"He's one of the single biggest reasons why we are where we are," said Wheeler. "(Connor has) put up nearly 30 goals and is a real impact player playing with Mark Scheifele and I. It's quite a surprise.
"I've said it before, but coming into the year I didn't really know what to expect out of him."
In addition to Connor's 29th goal of the season moving him into a tie with Vancouver's Brock Boeser for the NHL rookie goal scoring lead, the 21-year-old added two assists Sunday to hit the 50-point plateau.
"I think every game in this league you gain more confidence," said Connor, who has seven goals in Winnipeg's last six games, including a pair of game-winners in overtime in the Jets' previous two contests. "It builds as the team wins and everybody is playing well. So that's kind of the feeling in this room."
"(Wheeler has) meant so much to me, him and Scheifele. It's just been awesome playing with those guys. It's always something new, learning every game and every practice. It's been really fun."
Dustin Byfuglien also scored on the power play, while Bryan Little and Wheeler both added a goal and an assist for Winnipeg.
Kyle Turris, Ryan Ellis, and Viktor Arvidsson each recorded a goal and an assist, and Roman Josi also scored for the Predators.
Scheifele scored the only shootout goal for either club.
"There's a lot of people shooting the puck out there. They got a lot of talent on their team," said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, as the clubs have combined for 41 goals in five meetings this season.
"Our guys do a pretty good job scoring goals. I can't explain it. Both teams have good goaltending. Both teams played pretty good defence but offence seems to rule the day."
Nashville backup Juuse Saros stopped 43 of the 47 shots he faced, while the Predators rested their Vezina Trophy candidate goaltender Pekka Rinne after playing the night before in Minnesota.
Connor Hellebuyck made 32 saves for the Jets, improving his record to 39-11-9 on the season.
The Predators went 1 for 5 on the power play as Turris's 14th put the Predators up 2-0 with less than one second remaining in the first period. The Jets' two goals with the man-advantage put their power play at 2 for 5 in the game.
"I think playoffs are a lot different, to be honest with you," said Predators defenceman Mattias Ekholm when asked about potentially meeting the Jets in the post-season. "It's most likely going to be the same players so I wouldn't expect anything much different. But playoffs are playoffs. I know on our part, we're going to tighten up defensively, for sure."
Winnipeg is 5-0-0 on its current home stand and will complete the stretch at Bell MTS Place on Tuesday against the Boston Bruins.
With a quick two-game road trip behind them, the Central Division-leading Predators now return home for three games beginning Tuesday against the Wild.
NOTES: Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Brock Boeser's season ended March 5 when he suffered a fracture in his lower back.