The winner of the Jets-Predators arms race will be ultimately declared in the post-season, but the Central Division powerhouses did their best to outmanoeuvre each other before Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Judging by Friday’s result, a 5-3 Winnipeg victory at Bell MTS Place, another seven-game division final should whet the appetite of any hockey fan. But neither the Jets, 4-6-1 in their past 11 games, nor Nashville, also 4-6-1 over the same span, have performed in the dominant fashion they are accustomed to.
"There’s probably only two or three teams in the whole league that can say they feel perfect about where they’re at," Preds head coach Peter Laviolette said prior to Friday’s game. "We’re not at the playoffs, yet, either. So that may not hold true for those teams. Every day is a work in progress of trying to get something on point or keep something going in the right direction, and then 10 or 12 days from now, everything could shift and we might be looking at something else that we’re trying to correct.
"But that’s part of the regular season. You’re dealing with the ups and downs and the injuries and everything that can be factored into a season."
The Predators got bigger and older with a trio of key pre-deadline acquisitions.
Hulking Brian Boyle came over from New Jersey and took a spot on the left side with centre Nick Bonino and Colton Sissons while super skilled Finn Mikael Granlund, pried loose from Central rival Minnesota, provides extra offence and experience on a line with left-winger Calle Jarnkrok and centre Kyle Turris.
The Preds also added Wayne Simmonds, a highly respected power forward from the Philadelphia Flyers, who began his Predators career on a fourth line with left-winger Rocco Grimaldi and centre Frederick Gaudreau. The Jets were also believed to be pursuing Simmonds at the deadline.
The Jets countered by dealing for centre Kevin Hayes, blue-liners Nathan Beaulieu and Bogdan Kiselevich and depth forwards Par Lindholm and Matt Hendricks.
"You’ve gotta pick it up quick," Simmonds said of the Nashville-Winnipeg rivalry. "I’ve played in a lot of rivalry games in Philadelphia and I think the most I know about those is they’re extremely intense, you want to get to the body early."
Simmonds and Boyle clearly serve as a nuclear deterrent to Winnipeg’s size advantage.
"They’re going to be even heavier because of Simmonds," Jets forward Patrik Laine said. "Granlund’s not that heavy guy, but he has a lot of skill and can make plays. So he’ll be a pretty good fit. Those are two elite guys, so that made their team even better."
The hard-nosed Simmonds should become even more important to the mix in the post-season when the stakes are raised and the rulebook is less strictly enforced.
"Having coached Wayne before, we picked up a terrific teammate, a terrific person, a guy with some experience and leadership," Laviolette said. "Certainly some toughness and some physicality. And a really good set of hands around the net. So all of those are positive. And adds a little bit of size. Him and Brian both bring some size to the lineup. We’ve got some big opponents that we might be facing. That size was important."
The template for the Nashville-Winnipeg rivalry was firmly established last spring.
"We have slightly different systems... our personnel is a little different, but the style is the same," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. "Both teams are really aggressive and get to the net and play a hard, fast game. So, that alone, when we’ve gotten together, there have been some games. The visual that I have is in Nashville in the regular season, either last year or the year before, (referee) Wes McCauley has put all 10 players into the penalty box on two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
"So there’s nobody on either bench and I think we ended up having eight or nine (guys) in the penalty box that night. So, there’s an intensity between these two teams and then, the playoffs certainly brought out that again."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.