NASHVILLE — Winnipeg’s backup group took centre stage in Music City and generated rave reviews in a convincing victory Thursday night.

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NASHVILLE — Winnipeg’s backup group took centre stage in Music City and generated rave reviews in a convincing victory Thursday night.

Fourth-line winger Brendan Lemieux scored a pair of goals, linemate Mason Appleton added a single and third-pairing blue-liners Sami Niku and Joe Morrow each had two assists and finished plus-four in a solid 5-1 triumph over the Nashville Predators in an uncharacteristically quiet Bridgestone Arena.

Winnipeg Jets centre Mason Appleton celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators during the second period.

(AP PHOTO/MARK ZALESKI)

Winnipeg Jets centre Mason Appleton celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators during the second period.

The Central Division-leading Jets (31-14-2) won their fourth in a row, moving four points ahead of the Predators (28-17-4) with two games in hand.

Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck was dynamite, stopping 37 shots in his return to the crease after being a surprise spectator Tuesday when the Vegas Golden Knights came to town.

But the real story of the night was the assertive play of Winnipeg’s supporting cast.

"It feels great. I was excited to play against these guys. It kind of has that old-time hockey feel to it, there’s some passion in the game," said Lemieux, who supplied the fourth and fifth goals of his rookie season. "It’s a long season and there’s a lot of games, and some games don’t have that. This was one of those games you circle on your calendar and you know is going to be a fun one. 

"It was awesome. Our line played great. It’s always good when you can chip in offensively, but I liked our overall game."

The feisty Lemieux scored the only goal of the first frame on a wraparound, stuffing the puck behind Preds star goalie Pekka Rinne midway through the period.

"It came to my stick, I had a little bit of speed, fake shot and I saw (Rinne) bite pretty hard and I thought I was going to take it wide and shoot from a bad angle. He was pretty far out, so I just said, ‘I’ll try the wrap’ and I got it to go," he said.

Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele falls to the ice in front of Nashville Predators left wing Austin Watson during the first period.

(AP PHOTO/MARK ZALESKI)

Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele falls to the ice in front of Nashville Predators left wing Austin Watson during the first period.

Catching the Preds running around, the fourth-line struck again early in the middle period as Appleton finished off a superb passing display by Morrow and Niku. The primary assist was just the second point in 28 games for Morrow this year. He had an assist on a Lemieux goal on New Year’s Eve in Edmonton.

Bryan Little and Brandon Tanev added singles for the Jets, each with his 11th goal of the campaign.

"I’d say it was definitely one of the more well-rounded efforts. There wasn’t a whole lot we did wrong out there. I thought we executed the game perfectly. And when we did have breakdowns (Hellebuyck) made big saves. I thought we played a good road game," said Little.

The clubs have split a pair of games in Nashville this season. They last met here Oct. 11 when the Preds posted a 3-0 shutout in a wild affair in which the Jets were assessed 14 penalties, playing much of the game short-handed.

The Jets and Predators still have two tilts in Winnipeg in March.

Nashville Predators centre Ryan Johansen checks Winnipeg Jets defenseman Sami Niku into the boards during the first period Thursday in Nashville.

(AP PHOTO/MARK ZALESKI)

Nashville Predators centre Ryan Johansen checks Winnipeg Jets defenseman Sami Niku into the boards during the first period Thursday in Nashville.

Indeed, there was plenty of hype surrounding the battle between two of the NHL’s premier squads, who slugged it out in a see-saw, seven-game playoff series in May. The Jets slipped out of the Tennessee capital with a win in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference final.

Winnipeg was dominant on this night, despite the fact its offensive leaders, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, were held off the scoresheet.

When asked what it means when the scoring gets spread around, Jets head coach Paul Maurice was candid with his response.

"You’ve got a good chance of winning the hockey game. Their play has improved," Maurice said of the Andrew Copp-Lemieux-Appleton trio. "The wingers have done a nice job but Andrew Copp going back to the middle has made a big, big difference. I don’t pull them from the ice when (the Ryan) Johansen (top line) comes on and they end up scoring a goal.

"They’ve earned that ice and that trust. Good for them."

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stops a shot as Nashville Predators right wing Craig Smith looks for a rebound during the second period.

(AP PHOTO/MARK ZALESKI)

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stops a shot as Nashville Predators right wing Craig Smith looks for a rebound during the second period.

Little scored with just 45.6 seconds left in the second, batting the puck out of mid-air after Rinne gave up a rebound off a Patrik Laine shot, to give the Jets a two-goal cushion. Then Tanev redirected a floater from Niku just 1:54 into the third.

"I just closed my eyes and swung. I wasn’t aiming anywhere, I was just trying to make contact and got lucky, I guess," said Little.

Niku finished the night with the first two assists of his NHL career.

Viktor Arvidsson scored the lone goal for the Predators, his 18th in just 25 games after missing 24 earlier in the year with an injury.

The Jets killed off four Predators power-play chances and have killed 12 straight over their last three games.

Winnipeg Jets left wing Brandon Tanev, top, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators during the third period. The Jets won 5-1.

(AP PHOTO/MARK ZALESKI)

Winnipeg Jets left wing Brandon Tanev, top, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators during the third period. The Jets won 5-1.

A day after hinting he was miffed at being passed over for the start against visiting Vegas on Tuesday, Hellebuyck put in a solid performance in his return to the crease. He was particularly sharp in the opening period with 11 saves, several superb, and thwarted an Arvidsson breakaway chance in the middle period.

Someone manning the goal horn inadvertently hit the switch, but there was no question Hellebuyck made the stop.

"It wasn’t even close. It was kinda rude," Hellebuyck said, wryly. "I like this rink. Good memories too. Something about this place just suits my style. I was excited to play tonight and I think it showed."

The Jets had a first-period power-play goal erased on a coach’s challenge. Wheeler beat Rinne with a bullet from the right dot with Nashville a man short, however, puck carrier Laine looked like he threw Scheifele offside when he gained the zone 18 seconds earlier — and the video proved it.

Preds staff later said the club is perfect in five video challenges this season.

Rinne made 29 saves.

The Jets headed to Dallas after the game and have a day off Friday before battling the Stars on Saturday night. Game time is 6 p.m. 

The Jets will then have the all-star break and a bye week before playing the Flyers in Philadelphia on Jan. 28.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).