Winnipeg Jets rookie Kyle Connor finally erupts in playoffs


Kyle Connor scored two goals and added an assist as the Winnipeg Jets dominated the Nashville Predators in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

NASHVILLE – There are two kinds of hockey players at this time of year.

“Sometimes guys get scared of the moment,” Paul Stastny says. “Some guys just go and play.” Truth be told, we weren’t certain which category to slot Kyle Connor.

 Then Saturday happened.
Heading into the biggest game in Winnipeg Jets history until the next one, Winnipeg’s top-line super rookie had yet to score in nine post-season outings.

A 28-day drought can make 31 goals in the regular season seem like a distant memory. Sure, Connor had four assists and a few nice plays, but there have been several games where he’s been restricted to the perimeter. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele were doing all the heavy lifting.

Coach Paul Maurice recently suggested the left winger may have been snubbed by the writers who did not elect Connor as one of the Calder Trophy finalists.

“You score 30 goals as a rookie, though, you think you’d like to be in there,” Maurice said. “I didn’t vote on it. Whoever did, you can answer that one.”


But Connor’s whisper of an individual performance as the physicality and pressure escalated wasn’t exactly making voters look foolish.

“It’s a tighter series,” Maurice defended.

Winning masks all.

“I don’t lose sleep,” Connor says. “The bottom line is team success. If you score as a line, it’s just as good. If the team is winning, everybody’s happy.”

And so, the 21-year-old has been holding his head high even as his conversion rate plummeted.

“Just a matter of time. Keep shooting,” the kid would say, often. “You have to trust your skill, trust your work ethic. For me, if it’s not going in, I just try to work even harder. Results will come if you keep working.”

The dam broke in Nashville.

The Jets won 6-2 and can now eliminate the defending Western Conference champs on home ice. Connor snapped a game-high six shots, scored twice, and added an assist prettier than all of that.

After a monster second period for the visitors, Nashville needed to push in the third.

Instead, Wheeler sprung Scheifele for a rush not 30 seconds into the final frame. Connor, a straight-line skater, zipped into the 2-on-2 rush.

Noticing one of the defenders was actually a forward, Ryan Johansen, Scheifele drew the D-man and dished to Connor, who dusted Johansen with a between-the-legs dangle coming soon to a highlight show near you. (Connor would later admit he didn’t know it was Johansen he beat until Scheifele told him on the bench.)

Needing to respect the kid with the hat trick on his stick, Pekka Rinne had no chance when Connor slipped a quick pass back to Scheifele for his third point on the night.

“He has got a ton of confidence in himself. He’s scored goals his whole life. Good for him,” Wheeler said.

“He’s a young player used to putting the puck in the net, and when it doesn’t happen right away in your first taste of playoff action, it can be tough to stay with it. His confidence hasn’t wavered a bit.”

Wheeler and Maurice both pointed to a little dart and deke Connor made early in the game to get a shot off as an indication that he’d be on his game.

“You can play not to make mistakes, that’s fine. We all want to play smart hockey,” Maurice said. “But those kind of players, your really highly skilled guys, have to have a certain amount of [confidence] in their game.”

Funny, Connor didn’t even make this team out of training camp. But after five points in four games with the AHL Moose, he was called up for good.

“It’s tough any time you don’t make a team,” he reflected. “You have to realize where you’re at. You can’t feel sorry for yourself, thinking, ‘I should be playing [in the NHL].’ ”

Getting dropped to Stastny’s second line for the bulk of games 4 and 5, Connor says, was a little uncomfortable. He was happy Maurice put him back where he’s familiar on Saturday.

“He’s really simple. Shief and I know where he’s going to be on the ice. He’s very dependable, and like you see tonight, you get him in space, he can make some pretty great things happen,” Wheeler explained.

“That’s what’s made our line go this year. Scheif and I try to drive every shift, create time and space, and when we get him moving in those holes, he’s pretty dynamic.”

It speaks volumes about Winnipeg’s forward depth that a 31-goal man can wait until the 10th game of the post-season to light the lamp, that a 29-goal man (Nikolaj Ehlers) is still looking for his first, that Patrik Laine has yet to take over a game this series, and they’ve still chased Rinne twice and have all the Presidents’ men on the ropes.

“We have a certain way that we play, and that’s what you want,” Maurice said.

“It’s a hard-on-the-puck game. It’s like Kyle Connor’s game. We have to do some things with the puck. We can’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s all you want.”

Wheeler says this team can score and star by rotation. One night it’s Connor Hellebuyck standing on his head, another it’s Laine shooting the light out. Maybe Ehlers goes off Monday.

As for Kyle Connor, who just kept shooting?

“Tonight,” Wheeler said, “it was his turn.” [Via: sportsnet]