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Battle of the heavyweights

NHL's two best teams in regular season ready to lock horns in second round of playoffs

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele led all Jets in scoring in their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild with four goals.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/TREVOR HAGAN

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele led all Jets in scoring in their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild with four goals.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2018 (601 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When giants collide, expect some epic tremors.

The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, a pair of NHL titans, square off in Round 2 of the NHL playoffs. It's a best-of-seven series hockey fans well beyond the borders of Manitoba and Tennessee have been eagerly anticipating — even though most observers would prefer it occur in the Western Conference final.

Yet, here it comes, with a likely start on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.

This is a battle of the league's two premier squads, who just happen to play out of the Central Division. Both can stifle with an abiliity to defend with consistently, wound with size and brute force, and kill with speed and skill.

The Jets and Predators possess deep forward groups, bouyed by strength up the middle and balanced scoring attacks, their defensive units blend talent, mobility and ruggedness, and their netminders — Nashville's perennial all-star Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck, a revelation for Winnipeg during the 2017-18 season — are nothing short of sensational.

Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette is hoping to lead his team to the Stanley Cup final for the second season in a row.

AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY

Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette is hoping to lead his team to the Stanley Cup final for the second season in a row.

The Jets have never been this far before. They've never been anywhere before. Prior to demolishing the Minnesota Wild in five games in a first-round series, the franchise hadn't registered so much as a single post-season triumph, either as the Atlanta Thrashers or Jets 2.0.

But past coaches such as Curt Fraser, Bob Hartley, Craig Ramsay and Claude Noel didn't have the horses Jets head coach Paul Maurice has at his beck and call.

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette's formidable squad, however, stands in the way of advancement to the conference finale.

The Predators are still the same well-oiled machine that progressed to the 2017 final before falling in six games to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. But don't discount the impact of 'been there, done that' on this group — at this crucial time of year, experience can drive a deep playoff run.

Maurice counts himself among the masses champing at the bit to see how all this shakes out.

"Because they’re high-event games. Because something is happening all the time, right?" Maurice said, when asked why this conference semifinal series is so hotly anticipated. "Neither team is passive in how they play. Neither team sits back and tries to slow the game down in terms of what they do with the puck. There’s lots of action in these games."

 

PREDATORS VS. JETS: REGULAR SEASON PERFORMANCE

 

Nashville Predators Logo

82

47 - 29 - 6

100

43

.61

236

212

2.88

2.59

12.9

82.1

32.7

30

51.5

GPGames Played

RECORDWins, Losses, and Overtime losses

POINTSTwo points per win, one point per overtime or shootout loss

ROWCombined regular and overtime (non-shootout) wins

P%Percentage of maximum total points earned

GFTotal goals for

GATotal goals against

GF/GPAverage goals for per game

GA/GPAverage goals against per game

PP%Successful power play percentage

PK%Successful penalty killing percentage

SHOTS/GPAverage shots taken per game

SA/GPAverage shots against per game

FOW%Percentage of faceoffs won

Winnipeg Jets Logo

82

47 - 30 - 5

99

45

.604

270

243

3.29

2.96

24.8

79.1

31.2

33.4

50.7

 

PREDATORS VS JETS: PLAYOFF PERFORMANCE

 

Nashville Predators Logo

6

2 - 3

12

18

2

3

0

81.8

36.3

33.3

100

GPGames Played

RECORDWins, Losses

GFTotal goals for

GATotal goals against

GF/GPAverage goals for per game

GA/GPAverage goals against per game

PP%Successful power play percentage

PK%Successful penalty killing percentage

SHOTS/GPAverage shots taken per game

SA/GPAverage shots against per game

FOW%Percentage of faceoffs won

Winnipeg Jets Logo

6

2 - 4

16

16

2.67

2.67

21.4

73.7

28.8

30.7

100

 

The Winnipeg Jets are lead by their captain Blake Wheeler, seen here evading Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban during a regular season game.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Winnipeg Jets are lead by their captain Blake Wheeler, seen here evading Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban during a regular season game.

Up front

When these squads meet, the goal lights get a workout. Winnipeg and Nashville combined to score 41 goals in five games this season — entertaining hockey to say the least.

It's a tough one to figure out, too, because Nashville ranked second in goals against during the 82-game regular season, while Winnipeg finished fifth.

Winnipeg is led by power forward Blake Wheeler, in his second season since being named captain of the team. His vision and play-making ability were never more on display than this season when he picked up 68 assists. He set up three goals in the series against the Wild, while his centre, Mark Scheifele, led all Jets with four goals.

The Winnipeg Jets' young stars like Patrik Laine will have to overcome the tight checking that is the norm for Stanley Cup playoff hockey.

AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY

The Winnipeg Jets' young stars like Patrik Laine will have to overcome the tight checking that is the norm for Stanley Cup playoff hockey.

With a red-hot Scheifele, give the Jets the edge in scoring, although the time and space afforded to young snipers Patrik Laine (44 goals), Kyle Connor (31) and Nikolaj Ehlers (29) during the regular season is already being severely curtailed in April.

A quartet of centres in Scheifele, Paul Stastny, Bryan Little and Adam Lowry comprise a sturdy spine for the Jets forwards. But the Predators are just as sound up the middle, with Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino and Mike Fisher.

Filip Forsberg had 26 goals during the regular season and has four in the playoffs, tied with bruiser Austin Watson for the Predators' team lead.

The Predators attack in waves, and all their units up front can cause damage. If Forsberg, Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson don't get you, Turris' trio of Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala — proven Jet killers — will. Watson, Bonino — a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh — and Colton Scissons, known for their defensive effectiveness, joined forces on the club's best line in the series against the Colorado Avalanche.

 

Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban is one of the NHL's three finalists for the Norris trophy this season.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/TREVOR HAGAN

Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban is one of the NHL's three finalists for the Norris trophy this season.

The back end

Winnipeg was the beneficiary of some bad luck for the Wild when Ryan Suter was sidelined with a broken right ankle. Losing a bona fide No. 1 defender is never a good thing.

The Predators have a couple of healthy versions patrolling their D-zone. Roman Josi is nothing short of brilliant, while the rest of the top four, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis, hammer home why last year's NHL runners-up are the favourites to get back to the final again.

Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi, right, takes Sidney Crosby out of the play. Josi is a skilled, physical defender that excels at both ends of the rink.

AP PHOTO/MARK ZALESKI

Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi, right, takes Sidney Crosby out of the play. Josi is a skilled, physical defender that excels at both ends of the rink.

They aren't just adept at smothering sparks in their own end, they generate plenty of offence of their own. Lowry was asked what Winnipeg has in store to defend the push from the Predators' electrifying back end.

"Their forwards are so used to having that second wave that they’re looking for that option if they don’t have a play to the net or play through the seam," he said. "They have a lot of guys on the back end that can really shoot the puck. It’s really about making sure you backcheck smart and kinda take your assignment and don’t try and do someone else’s job."

Despite missing Dmitry Kulikov and Toby Enstrom for long stretches, Winnipeg hasn't looked particularly vulnerable on its back end with the strong play of Chiarot and Joe Morrow fortifying a tremendous top four of Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba.

Myers had a couple of goals in the series with Minnesota, while Byfuglien created a jaw-dropping, one-man highlight reel of crushing bodychecks against the Wild.

 

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck posted back-to-back shutouts to close out his team's first round series with the Wild.

AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck posted back-to-back shutouts to close out his team's first round series with the Wild.

Crease conflict

Rinne might have an edge for the Vezina over Hellebuyck as the league's top goalie — and he's certainly got sentimentality on his side if the numbers are too close to call. He has been nominated four times, so receiving the nod as more of a 'lifetime achievement award' wouldn't generate much of an argument. But the Finnish-born puckstopper has earned it on recent performance alone.

He was third in the league with 42 wins, led the league in shutouts with eight, and, among all NHL starters with at least 50 starts, was at the top of the heap in save percentage (.927), and goals-against average (2.31).

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne is a perpetual candidate for the Vezina trophy but has never won the award for the league's top goalie.

AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne is a perpetual candidate for the Vezina trophy but has never won the award for the league's top goalie.

"You got to get some traffic to him and get some second and third opportunities," said Lowry. "He’s nominated for the Vezina for a reason, he’s the backbone of their team and he bails them out on occasion. He’s a world-class goalie. I think you got to bear down on your opportunities and take advantage of them when you get them."

Hellebuyck was terrific in the series with the Wild, posting a pair of shutouts in Games 4 and 5. He was beaten for six goals in Game 3 in St. Paul, Minn., but came right back with sound performances,

"Obviously he had a great year. The thing that sticks out to me is you look at those games after a game that he didn't necessarily like, his mental toughness was unbelievable," said Myers. "The way he rebounds and the way things don't faze him, it's exactly what you want to see from your goalie, especially this time of year. He was not only good for us all year, he was awesome for us in Round 1."

Hellebuyck started 64 games and posted a 44-11-9 record with six shutouts. He finished second in GAA (2.36) and third in SV% (.924) among all netminders with at least 50 starts.

 

Nashville's' P.K. Subban, right, taunts Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele during a game in February this season. Subban has an innate ability to get under the skin of his opponents which he'll likely put to good use against the Jets when they begin their playoff series this week.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nashville's' P.K. Subban, right, taunts Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele during a game in February this season. Subban has an innate ability to get under the skin of his opponents which he'll likely put to good use against the Jets when they begin their playoff series this week.

Mutual dislike?

They say familiarity breeds contempt, and after five seasons competing in the same division — including five regular-season games in 2017-18 — the Jets and Predators know each other well and have carved out an intense rivalry.

Winnipeg centre Matt Hendricks and ex-Nashville forward Cody McLeod were involved in the one and only fight between the two sides in November, however, Chiarot and Craig Smith did just about everything but toss down the mitts in a wrestling match in mid-March, while Myers stepped in to stop some shenanigans by Subban, who tried to goad Scheifele into an altercation in a game March 25.

Subban is a brilliant, mult-dimensional defenceman who plays with an edge and gets under players' skin. Expect plenty of Bronx cheers each time he corrals the puck at Bell MTS Place.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant 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).

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History

Updated on Monday, April 23, 2018 at 10:18 PM CDT: Updates attribution in the numbers box.

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