By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – It was fitting that Blake Wheeler led the Winnipeg Jets to their final victory of the season.
Wheeler did that by scoring a short-handed goal with 45 seconds left to lift Winnipeg to its seventh straight victory with a 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
The captain deserved to end the NHL team’s difficult playoff-less season on a high note, head coach Paul Maurice said.
“(Wheeler) just did a remarkable job, bringing the kids in, being an example for those kids,” Maurice said of the team’s rookies. “So it was nice for him to get one, get the last one, have it be meaningful in the situation that we’re in.”
With Jets forward Joel Armia in the penalty box for tripping, centre Mark Scheifele carried the puck up the middle of the ice, waited for Wheeler to get near the net and then sent him a pass he used for a low backhand shot past goalie Pekka Rinne.
“When you have chemistry with a guy like him, the chemistry that we’ve kind of formed here the last couple of years, it’s a pretty special feeling,” Wheeler said of Scheifele.
“We were kind of knocking on the door all game and what a play he made to send me in. That one felt good.”
Wheeler finished on a season-high, eight-game point streak with four goals and seven assists in that span. He put up 26 goals and 74 points for the season. Scheifele was Winnipeg’s leading scorer with 82 points in 79 games, including 32 goals. Both were a career high for the four-year player.
Winnipeg was already eliminated from the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons since relocating from Atlanta, but the seven-game win streak was a record for the Jets/Thrashers franchise.
Nashville has 94 points and will hold the second wild-card spot in the NHL Western Conference. Calgary also has 94 points and was playing San Jose later in the night, but the Flames hold the tie-breaker over the Predators and get the first wild-card berth.
The Predators will face Chicago in the first round.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” Rinne said of going up against the Blackhawks. “It’s a world-class team and we obviously look forward to playing against them, but we’ve got to prepare well for next week.”
Defenceman Ryan Ellis scored a short-handed goal for Nashville in the second period.
Winnipeg forward Kyle Connor, called up from the AHL Manitoba Moose April 3, was playing his first NHL game since Nov. 29 and tied it 1-1 midway through the third period.
Connor Hellebuyck made 33 saves for the Jets (40-35-7). Rinne had 34 stops for the Nashville (41-29-12).
Winnipeg was 10-2-1 in its last 13 games.
The Jets outshot the visitors 14-7 in a scoreless first period.
Nashville had a two-man advantage for 1:12 midway through the second, but ended the game going 0 for 6 on the power play. Winnipeg was 0 for 2.
Back from missing one game with an injury, Ellis took advantage of a Bryan Little turnover to score his 16th goal of the season at 11:31 of the second. The unassisted marker came with teammate Viktor Arvidsson in the box for hooking.
Nashville unsuccessfully used a coaches challenge on a no-goal by Arvidsson late in the period.
A Nashville turnover by Anthony Biletto at centre ice gave Adam Lowry the puck and he sent a pass to Connor for his second goal of the season at 10:47.
“I’m not happy with the last 10 minutes. The first 50 minutes I was really happy,” Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette said. “We were skating well, we were in control of the game. I thought we played a real strong game.”
Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen each finished with 61 points, with Johansen playing all 82 games and Arvidsson 80.