By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Connor Hellebuyck thinks the Winnipeg Jets are starting to turn the corner at the right time.
Hellebuyck made 31 saves, Nikolaj Ehlers scored twice and Morgan Barron was successful on a penalty shot as the Jets defeated the New Jersey Devils 6-1 on Sunday.
“We’re sticking to our game and we’re building it,” said Hellebuyck, who registered his 34th win in his 60th start of the NHL season.
“This is when you want to peak and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
The Jets have won back-to-back games, including a 6-2 victory over Detroit on Friday, but are still 5-5-0 in their past 10 games.
Devils forward Nico Hischier foiled Hellebuyck’s shutout bid when he scored on the power play with 13.9 seconds left in the third period.
“They wanted it more,” Hischier said of the Jets. “I think they just out-battled us tonight. But I also think the score was a little too high. We had our chances for sure, but if you give up six goals you’re not winning a hockey game so we’ve got to clean that up.”
Pierre-Luc Dubois had a goal and assist, while Kyle Connor and Nino Niederreiter also scored for the Jets (43-31-3). Blake Wheeler and Josh Morrissey each contributed a pair of assists.
Vitek Vanacek stopped 17 of 21 shots for New Jersey (48-21-8) before he was replaced by Mackenzie Blackwood to start the third period. Blackwood made four saves in relief.
Even though the Devils were playing the second game of a back-to-back set after beating the Blackhawks in Chicago Saturday night, it was a rare loss. New Jersey went into the game 9-2-0 in the second half of back-to-back games, and 5-0 when those were road games.
“I take nothing (from the game) except disappointment, because when you play back-to-back games you’ve got to be smarter,” New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said. “You’ve got to take care of the puck more. We gave up a couple breakaways.”
The victory helped Winnipeg’s quest for a playoff spot. They’re one point behind idle Seattle for the first Western Conference wild-card playoff berth, but the Kraken have two games in hand.
The Calgary Flames beat Anaheim 5-4 Sunday night and remain two points back of Winnipeg for the second wild-card playoff berth. The idle Nashville Predators are three points behind the Flames and have two games in hand on Winnipeg and Calgary. The Jets and Flames clash in Winnipeg on Wednesday.
Winnipeg led 2-0 after the first period and 4-0 following the second.
“Even though (the Devils) played last night, you saw their speed and their skill,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said. “So it was important that we came out of the gate hard and tried to get that lead, which we did. A lot of good things tonight.”
Ehlers scored 4:59 into the first period after Wheeler won a battle for the puck against the boards behind the net and sent the puck to Ehlers alone in the slot.
“We had a couple teams come in here on back-to-backs and we’ve been able to rest a little bit,” Wheeler said. “Yeah, hopefully we can keep that momentum going in the right direction and going forward.”
Ten seconds after a Winnipeg power play expired, Neiderreiter scored his 24th goal of the season off a rebound with 3:45 remaining in the first.
Jets forward Adam Lowry helped the play develop by stealing the puck just outside New Jersey’s blue line and giving it to Wheeler.
Winnipeg went up 3-0 at 2:42 of the second after Barron got a penalty shot when Devils defenceman Damon Severson held him on a breakaway. Barron skated in on Vanecek and fired the puck low and inside the post.
Connor recorded his 30th goal of the season after Dubois got the puck to him at the front of the net and beat Vanecek at 10:34.
The Devils outshot Winnipeg 14-8 in the middle frame, but Hellebuyck made some key saves and his teammates helped him out by blocking shots. The Jets had 16 blocked shots after the second compared to New Jersey’s six.
Ehlers notched his 12th goal of the season when he beat Blackwood stick side with 5:50 remaining, but Hischier recorded his 31st with 13.9 seconds left.
Barron became the fourth Jets player to score on a penalty shot since the team relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. The others were Bryan Little, Ehlers and Dubois. … Devils forward Jack Hughes assisted on Hischier’s goal to give him 90 points on the season. Hughes became the youngest player in franchise history to reach that mark (21 years, 323 days). … Wheeler’s pair of assists gave him his 200th multi-point game and 108th multi-assist game. Both are the most in franchise history. … The game was Winnipeg’s final regular-season meeting with an Eastern Conference team. The Jets finished 15-17-0 against Eastern clubs.
Jets: Host the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.
Devils: Host the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday.