WINNIPEG Tom Kuhnhackl Jersey , Manitoba — The Winnipeg Jets nailed down a playoff spot for just the second time since relocating from Atlanta in 2011, but their work isn’t done.
Next up on the agenda is locking up home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and possibly the second. They can take a big step toward that by extending their five-game winning streak. Standing in their way is none other than the third-best team in the NHL — the Boston Bruins.
The Jets are virtually assured of finishing second in the Central Division, but after their exhilarating 5-4 shootout victory over Nashville on Sunday, they’ve got a franchise-high 102 points and are just five points behind the suddenly struggling Predators. Nashville has lost three straight games on the heels of an impressive 10-game winning streak.
“You have no idea (how satisfying it is making the playoffs),” captain Blake Wheeler told The Winnipeg Free Press. “The worst part of (past years) has been having to watch these games that mean a lot, both coming down the stretch and into the playoffs. That stung and, unfortunately, we have watched a lot of it. (We’ve) just been biding our time for our opportunity.”
Wheeler, who scored his 20th goal of the season against Nashville, giving the Jets five players to have reached that milestone Alex Goligoski Jersey , is the NHL’s assists co-leader with 65.
Many prognosticators believe the Jets and Predators will meet in the second round of the playoffs. If their regular-season games are any indication, it could be a memorable battle. The Predators won three of five contests and the two teams combined for 41 goals.
While Patrik Laine has cooled off the last few games after blocking a slapshot off his skate against Los Angeles last week — he’s still second in the race for the Rocket Richard trophy with 43 goals — rookie winger Kyle Connor has picked up the slack. After scoring four goals — including back-to-back overtime winners — and two assists in three games, he was named the NHL’s third star of the week.
The Bruins come to town after defeating Minnesota 2-1 in overtime on Sunday and sit in second place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Division with 104 points, trailing just the Tampa Bay Lightning with 106, but with a game in hand. Super pest Brad Marchand sniped the winning goal just 28 seconds into the extra period for his 33rd of the season.
Defenseman Torey Krug said he saw that Marchand had a step on his man, so he bounced a pass off the boards and let him go to work.
“He wants to be the guy,” Krug told The Boston Globe. “He’s got that edge to him. (He) wins a lot of 50-50 pucks, and when you are three-on-three on the ice and he is winning those battles, it is going to lead to a chance for your team.”
Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, who has been out for a week since suffering a concussion against Dallas Bryce Callahan Jersey , has been cleared to resume practicing with a no-contact jersey.
The smiling side of a handshake line at the end of the second round was a brand-new experience for Alex Ovechkin and Barry Trotz.
Ovechkin received a message of good luck and a pat on the chest from Sidney Crosby, while Trotz got to enjoy a happy moment with longtime coaching friend Jacques Martin. Ovechkin acknowledged he’d been in that position a lot of times – though never as the one moving on to the third round.
The Washington Capitals reaching the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998 is perhaps most special to the superstar captain and his coach who had never made it out of the second round before. No coach in NHL history had been behind the bench for more games than Trotz and no active player had been in as many playoff games as Ovechkin without reaching the conference finals.
”There is a kinship there, there’s no question,” Trotz said. ”I’ve been at this for a while and it’s so hard to move forward sometimes. It’s always thrown in your face everywhere your turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns, and he’s a great player in this league. … I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it, and you just got to stay with it.”
After 51 playoff games together, Ovechkin and Trotz will take part in their first East final starting Friday night in Tampa Bay against the Lightning. Now that they’ve gotten over a hump that defined their respective careers, Ovechkin, Trotz and the Capitals are in unfamiliar territory.
”It’s something new for us and cool,” Ovechkin said Wednesday Paul Hornung Jersey , less than 48 hours after Washington eliminated the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. ”Right now it’s just satisfaction we beat the Stanley Cup champions finally and we move forward and now we’re going to play against a very good team, against very good goaltending and solid players over there.”
The Atlantic Division-champion Lightning present a formidable challenge, but the Capitals had to overcome something altogether different after losing in the first or second round in all nine playoff appearances that have come during the Ovechkin era dating to 2008. Beating the rival Penguins in overtime in a Game 6 on the road made the breakthrough even more emotional.
”We should be proud of that,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”It’s a big achievement. But I think we’ve got to be greedy. We’ve got to want more because this is a heck of a run. I don’t know if there is a group out there that knows how hard it is to get to this point.”
The Capitals are at this point with Ovechkin on top of his game with eight goals and seven assists, his best playoff output since 2009. And they’re here in large part because of Trotz, a well-respected, 19-year NHL coach who does not have a contract for next season.
”I had a summer which was very enlightening to me, and I just look at everything way differently than I ever have,” Trotz said. ”I just recognized that I can only control what I can control, and the other stuff I can’t.”
Trotz can’t control upper-body injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky or a three-game suspension handed out to winger Tom Wilson Jason Spezza Jersey , only the decisions he makes in replacing them. So far, Trotz has pushed the right buttons, like putting Braden Holtby back in net in Game 2 of the first round and promoting Jakub Vrana to the top line in Game 5 against Pittsburgh.
His players know Trotz is in control as he and the Capitals advance further into the spring than they have in 20 years.
”He wants to win a Cup,” forward Chandler Stephenson said. ”He doesn’t want to make it past the second round. It’s obviously a little accomplishment, a little confidence-boost. But we’re not done yet. We’re only halfway.”
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich contributed.
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