NASHVILLE — Kyle Connor made a move in the first period Saturday that signalled to Jets captain Blake Wheeler his linemate was going to have a big night.
Head coach Paul Maurice saw the same thing.
The rookie winger didn’t disappoint, and now Winnipeg is one win away from the Western Conference final.
Connor buried the first two playoff goals of his career and added an assist as the Jets defeated the Nashville Predators 6-2 to take a 3-2 lead in their second-round series.
“So happy for him,” Wheeler, who wound up with three assists, said of Connor. ”A young player used to putting the puck in net … when it doesn’t happen right away, especially in your first taste of playoff action, it can be tough to stay with it. But his confidence hasn’t wavered a bit.
“Tonight was his turn.”
The 21-year-old scored 31 goals to pace all rookies in 2017-18, but had failed to connect in nine post-season games before his explosion in Game 5.
“I don’t lose sleep,” Connor said. ”The bottom line is team success.
“If the team is winning, everybody’s happy.”
Maurice reunited Connor with Wheeler and Mark Scheifele — the trio combined for eight points Saturday — following a 2-1 loss in Game 4 after moving him to the second unit with Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine for the last five periods of the series.
“He plays at a certain rate, a certain cadence,” Maurice said of that move Connor made at the blue line in the first. ”That set him up, I thought, for the rest of the game. You can play not to make mistakes, that’s fine, we all want to play smart hockey. But those kind of players, your really highly skilled guys, have to have a certain amount of (confidence) in their game.
“When there’s nerves, there’s not as much of that. I think he kind of pushed through it on that play.”
Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien had a goal and an assist each for Winnipeg, while Stastny and Mathieu Perreault also scored.
Connor Hellebuyck made 38 saves — he was especially strong in a first period dominated by the hosts — with Nikolaj Ehlers adding two assists.
Yannick Weber and Ryan Johansen replied for Nashville. Pekka Rinne stopped 20 of 26 shots before getting pulled in favour of Juuse Saros, who finished with five saves.
“It just seemed like every time we made a mistake it ended up in our net,” Predators defenceman P.K. Subban said.
The Jets will look to close out the series in Game 6 at home on Monday.
Game 7, if necessary, would be back in Nashville on Thursday.
Scoreless through the first 27 minutes, the teams exploded for six goals in a stretch of just over 10 minutes in the second period.
Stastny put Winnipeg up 1-0 at 7:44 when Patrik Laine’s shot from the left faceoff dot deflected off the Jets centre and past Rinne for his fourth of the playoffs.
The Predators tied it at 11:08 when Weber jumped on a turnover and moved in on an odd-man rush before roofing a shot past Hellebuyck’s glove for the defenceman’s first playoff goal since 2011.
But Connor restored Winnipeg’s lead 1:22 later when he popped a loose puck upstairs off a scramble in front after some good work from Scheifele.
Byfuglien then made it 3-1 at 14:35 with his fourth of the series when he blasted a shot through traffic past Rinne before Connor stretched the advantage to 4-1 at with 2:59 left in the period when he took a slick feed from Wheeler at side of Nashville’s goal.
The Jets got the game’s first power play on the next shift, but Johansen raced the other way on a 2-on-1 and beat Hellebuyck shortside for his fifth only 58 seconds later.
But Scheifele put any thoughts of a comeback to bed just 28 seconds into the third when he finished off a pass into the slot from Connor for his ninth after a great setup from the first-year winger.
Perrault then banged home his first off a lucky bounce on a power play to end Rinne’s night at 6:23.
After the Jets secured a crazy 7-4 comeback victory in Game 3 on home ice — there were 25 goals scored between the clubs in the first three outings — the Predators battened down the hatches defensively in Game 4, stifling Winnipeg’s speed through the neutral zone in a 2-1 win that evened the series.
“You tell your hockey team what you want from them,” Maurice said of his message ahead of Saturday. ”I’m not talking about play hard, skate hard. That’s not it. We have a certain way that we play. That’s what you want. There’s a certain freedom. It’s not casual by any means.
“It’s a hard-on-the-puck game. It’s a bit 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.”
Notes: Rinne was also pulled in Game 1. … Perreault, out since the opener of Winnipeg’s first-round series with the Minnesota Wild, took the place of veteran winger Matt Hendricks. … Kevin Fiala drew in for the Predators after getting scratched for Game 4 in favour of veteran forward Scott Hartnell.