NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Winnipeg Jets weren’t ready to start talking about the next task at hand late Thursday night after moving on to face the Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final.
They knew their time for celebration was limited.
Winnipeg returns home to open the best-of-seven series Saturday at 4 p.m.
“I don’t have any thoughts (about Vegas) yet,” goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said after making 36 saves in a 5-1 Game 7 win over the Predators. “I’m going to enjoy the moment, rest up and then get prepared. It’s a quick turnaround, but we’re going to enjoy tonight and get back to it.”
The Jets advanced to this point for the first time in the 18-year history of a franchise that was reborn as the Atlanta Thrashers and relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
They have eyes on an even bigger prize after finishing second in points in the regular season and eliminating the Presidents’ Trophy-winner Nashville. Winnipeg knows this has already been a magical ride for a team that was swept out of its only playoff series since the move.
“We’re just so happy to allow our fan base to have a celebration,” Jets captain and leading scorer Blake Wheeler said. “I’m a sports fan, too, and when my teams go on runs, it’s amazing. It’s a great feeling.
“Our fans have been with us and filling up or building for seven years and we haven’t always had the most success, but they’ve always been so supportive all over the city. I don’t think I’ve heard a negative comment in seven years. We’re just happy to keep playing for them.”
The next obstacle is a Golden Knights team that went 2-1 against the Jets this season, including a split of the games at Bell MTS Place where Winnipeg amassed the best home record in the league.
Jets coach Paul Maurice joked he didn’t even remember the regular-season meetings between the teams.
Wheeler wasn’t ready to give a full scouting report, either.
“Mentally, I’m not even there yet,” he said in the locker room. “From the times we played them this year, they were really fast and they played extremely hard. They were fast over the puck. They do the same things we try to do.
“It’s going to be an up-and-down, fast series, but like I said, I don’t have a great answer yet.”
The Jets first order of business will be to defend home ice. Winnipeg dropped the last two games against Nashville at home, snapping a 13-game winning streak there that dated to February.
It was a streak that roughly coincided with the acquisition of veteran forward Paul Stastny from St. Louis at the trade deadline.
Stastny, who scored two goals Thursday night, was not on the roster for any of the three meetings against the Knights this season. He waived his no-trade clause an accepted an opportunity to join a team loaded with young talent he believed could help him win a Stanley Cup.
Maurice said he’s been everything the team wanted when they made the move.
“Ecstatic,” the coach said of his thoughts on Stastny’s contributions. “He’s produced big numbers and big plus/minus with two very young players on his wings playing against good lines. All of that is his hockey sense is just off the charts in how to play under guys, when to get above them, when to make a play, when not to make a play. It’s a great learning experience for those young players.”
This kind of success may have come a year ahead of schedule. But now the Jets are just two steps away from becoming the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993.
Thursday’s win keeps them on track with a recent trend in which each of the last five champions have won a Game 7 during their playoff journey.
Whether the momentum can carry over into Saturday’s opener is a different story.
“We‘re going to try, but playoffs is just a series of gathering and losing momentum,” Hellebuyck said. “I don’t know if you carry any and I don’t know if you keep any, so we’ve just got to look forward to this next one and just continue battling the way we did.”
Winnipeg fans may still be celebrating when the puck drops for Game 1.
The Knights hope to end the party.