May 23, 2018

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Jets win series with workmanlike performance

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They can win in a variety of ways, but the Winnipeg Jets — with their season hanging in the balance — stuck to the tried-and-true method to nail down the most monumental triumph in franchise history.

The Jets put in a near-perfect performance on a grand stage in Music City, dumping the Nashville Predators in Game 7 of their second-round NHL playoff series.

Soaring into hostile territory, the Jets didn't just survive, they conquered.

Leading 2-1 after 20 minutes with a pair of ugly goals on all-star goalie Pekka Rinne, Winnipeg locked the vault on the Predators, eventually posting an impressive 5-1 win to capture the series 4-3.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They can win in a variety of ways, but the Winnipeg Jets — with their season hanging in the balance — stuck to the tried-and-true method to nail down the most monumental triumph in franchise history.

The Jets put in a near-perfect performance on a grand stage in Music City, dumping the Nashville Predators in Game 7 of their second-round NHL playoff series.

Soaring into hostile territory, the Jets didn't just survive, they conquered.

Leading 2-1 after 20 minutes with a pair of ugly goals on all-star goalie Pekka Rinne, Winnipeg locked the vault on the Predators, eventually posting an impressive 5-1 win to capture the series 4-3.

Winnipeg Jets celebrate after defeating the Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets advanced to the conference finals. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Winnipeg Jets celebrate after defeating the Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets advanced to the conference finals. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Winnipeg hosts the Vegas Golden Knights in the opener of the best-of-seven Western Conference final Saturday night at what surely will be a sold-out, hysterical Bell MTS Place, with thousands more howling outside the walls of the downtown arena.

"Right now we are just thrilled and we’re pretty pleased to knock off a team like Nashville. That was every bit the series we expected it to be. What a great team they are," said Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler. "There’s no doubt why they had the best regular-season record, they’re just tough from top to bottom and made our life miserable all series. That’s what we tried to do to them as well.

"It’s too bad one of us had to be knocked off here. But nights like tonight, you try to really soak it in and enjoy it. And then, wake up and get ready for a big game on Saturday."

The Jets now have half of the 16 playoff victories required to earn the right to hoist the Stanley Cup, after dispatching of the Minnesota Wild in Round 1 and the 2017 league finalists in Round 2.

"It’s huge. It was an awesome series," said top-line centre Mark Scheifele, who fired his 10th and 11th goals to grab the NHL playoff goal-scoring lead. "I think (the Predators are) an unbelievable team. They just battled to the end. We’re definitely happy that we came out on top.

Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny celebrates after teammate Tyler Myers scored a goal against the Nashville Predators during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny celebrates after teammate Tyler Myers scored a goal against the Nashville Predators during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"You know, it was fun hockey. They’re an unbelievable team. Top to bottom they’re so solid. And we think we’re pretty good, too. It was a fight to the end, as you saw," he said. "It was win a game, lose a game, win a game, lose a game. It was a fun series to be part of but it’s awesome to be on the good side of it.’’

Veteran centre Paul Stastny supplied a pair, his fifth and sixth goals, while Tyler Myers sparked the Jets with the all-important game-opener, his third of the post-season.

The series clincher over the Preds was generated using the very style to which the Jets have become accustomed to all season long. Lose a tough one Monday. Right the ship the next time out. Build a lead. Shut the door.

"It was just great to see our group play our game. That was our goal coming into this one, that win or lose, we wanted to play our game. It’s what has given us success all year," said Wheeler. "That was it. Keep it pretty simple, have a good first period and play our game all night."

Maintaining third-period cushions is nothing new for Winnipeg, which went 42-1-1 during the regular-season when ahead after 40 minutes.

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35), of Finland, goes to the bench as he's replaced after giving up two goals to the Winnipeg Jets during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35), of Finland, goes to the bench as he's replaced after giving up two goals to the Winnipeg Jets during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"We didn't throw pucks away. We came out right and looked right," said head coach Paul Maurice. "There's not going to be domination in a series like this. It's 2-1 for an awfully long time. It's a tight game. We felt like we were going to play well in the second (period), because we had (to)."

Three of four wins came in Nashville, while the Preds edged the Jets 5-4 in double-overtime in their only successful home date.

"The telling stat for me in this series is we played four games in here and never lost in regulation — against the best team in the league," said Maurice. That's what you worry about with a young team. It's a physical series. We've got some skaters. Kyle Connor got better as the series went on, stronger. I really liked Nikky Ehlers' game, on the puck. But that's a difficult thing to do, to get out on the road... to play well in here as consistently as we did, it's impressive."

Laying down their finest defensive effort of the series, the Jets frustrated the Predators with a neutral-zone clampdown, terrific puck possession and smart control in the offensive zone.

When the Preds found space, Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck was there to shut the door. He finished the night with 36 saves.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) blocks a shot by Nashville Predators left wing Viktor Arvidsson (33), of Sweden, during the second period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) blocks a shot by Nashville Predators left wing Viktor Arvidsson (33), of Sweden, during the second period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"That's my job every single night. We get up early and then I go to work. But the guys in front of me are keeping it easy for me. It makes the world of difference," said Hellebuyck.

He wasn't even the Jets' best player. Toss that honour to Stastny, who scored two goals and added an assist and has, in many respects, been the talk of the playoffs for the Jets. The 32-year-old centre, acquired at the trade deadline, now has six goals and eight assists in the playoffs.

Over his career, he's flashed some clutch Game 7 performances, netting four goals and eight points in four previous deciding games. His teams are 3-1 when he shines.

The Jets showed no sign of jitters in what was, for many, the first do-or-die playoff game of their NHL careers.

A couple of hard-working shifts by their bottom-six forwards worked wonders to set the tempo. Dogged on the puck, Joel Armia won several battles along the wall, while Brandon Tanev's takeaway helped orchestrate Stastny's first tally of the game.

Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny (25) scores a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros (74), of Finland, during the third period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets won 5-1, and advanced to the Western Conference final. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny (25) scores a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros (74), of Finland, during the third period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets won 5-1, and advanced to the Western Conference final. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Of all the predictions about Game 7, few would have pointed to a shaky performance from Rinne as a determining factor.

The Jets were gifted an early 2-0 lead, scoring on seven shots in just under 11 minutes of first-period action. Neither was a work of art. Myers fired from the corner along the goal-line and banked the puck in off Rinne's stick at 8:41, and then Stastny's backhander popped up and over the Finnish-born goalie.

The deafening Smashville crowd went suddenly quiet. Preds head coach Peter Laviolette wasted no time swapping Rinne out for backup Juuse Saros.

"Peks has been the backbone of this team and the reason why we’re here... it’s not all him," said Laviolette. "This is on all of us. It was a series that we wanted to move forward on. We ran into a good team and they’re moving on."

P.K. Subban's power-play goal with just over four minutes left in the first period pumped air back into the Bridgestone Arena crowd. But Winnipeg clamped down defensively in the second period, stealing a page from the Preds' playbook in Games 4 and 6. Nashville was challenged to gain entry into the offensive zone, mustering just six shots.

Winnipeg Jets players celebrate after a goal against the Nashville Predators late in the third period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets won 5-1 and advanced to the Western Conference final. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Winnipeg Jets players celebrate after a goal against the Nashville Predators late in the third period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets won 5-1 and advanced to the Western Conference final. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Jets struck for the only goal of the middle frame, a beauty from Scheifele at 17:50 after a perfect feed from Wheeler. In the third period. Stastny jumped on a rebound and beat Saros with the Preds a man short, and then Scheifele slid in an empty-netter to move one goal ahead of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel for the post-season lead. It was also his seventh goal in Nashville during the series.

The Jets easily dispensed with the team from the Twin Cities, then narrowly escaped loss and heartbreak to the club from the world’s country-music capital. Now, they'll try their luck against the sensational squad from Sin City, the expansion Golden Knights.

Vegas has already doubled down in the playoffs, dumping the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks to reach the conference final.

And it's been anything but beginner’s luck. Vegas was a dominant squad right from the first week of the 2017-18 regular season, finishing third in the conference (51-21-7, 109 pts), just back of the Jets (52-20-10, 114 pts.)

Scheifele said the team is ready for the short turnaround before the showdown with Vegas. "We’ll enjoy it tonight, and we’ll be happy and we’ll be smiling; then (Friday) it's back to business," he said.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

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History

Updated on Thursday, May 10, 2018 at 11:17 PM CDT: Adds photos

12:06 AM: Fixes several typos

12:17 AM: Adds video

May 11, 2018 at 7:37 AM: Adds video

9:35 AM: Updates fact box

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