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This article was published 9/5/2018 (1139 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NASHVILLE — Most observers figured the playoff matchup of the NHL's top two teams in the regular season would go just pretty much as its transpired — a dead heat.
Just three points separated the Central Division rivals through 82 games during the 2017-18 campaign. The Nashville Predators (53-18-11, 117 points) captured the Presidents' Trophy, which is awarded to the league's top regular season team, while the Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10, 114 points) landed just three points back.
The squads went head-to-head five times, with the Jets taking a pair, including one in a shootout, and the Preds prevailing three times.
In their second-round post-season series, neither team has been able to piece together consecutive victories. The Jets got the early jump, earning a 4-1 triumph on the road at Bridgestone Arena, but Nashville tied the series with a dramatic 5-4 double-overtime win. Winnipeg rallied at home for a wild 7-4 victory in Game 3, only to get bottled up 48 hours later in an expertly executed Nashville game plan and a 2-1 decision for the visitors. Winnipeg exploded for a 6-2 win in Music City in Game 5 but was shut down completely at Bell MTS Place to the tune of 4-0 in Game 6.
So, here we are in Game 7, with a spot in the Western Conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights on the line.
The Predators will have a loud, boisterous crowd to spur them on, and have experience on their side, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup final a year ago before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins. But head coach Peter Laviolette said Wednesday in Nashville that at this stage it's tough to consider any of those things an edge while offering up no predictions of what this final battle may bring.
"You know, these games have been played so many different ways that I can’t even venture to guess what that would be. There’s probably a long list of things that need to go well to be successful in a game. There’s a list of things, it could be anything. Specialty teams to goaltending to defence to offence, whatever it might be. You don’t know until you play, and especially in this series, I think the games have been so all over the map that you can’t really put a finger on it and just say, ‘If you just do this one thing, you’ll be fine.’ You try to play a complete game, focus in on that," he said.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday there's a quiet confidence within his group.
Jets vs. Predators: Head-to-head playoff performance
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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
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"The message going forward is going to be the one that was delivered all year. There's no big speech or departure from our game. The important one that was delivered all year was enjoy what we do, to have the confidence that you're going to go out there and perform at your best and certainly your best effort. But to enjoy it, the whole part. The nerves before the game, the tension of the game, the excitement of the game. I think it's such an important thing. You can't be on pins and needles. You've got to feel good and be excited about it," Maurice said following practice in Winnipeg.
Maurice was at a loss to explain why the road teams have had so much success in this series, winning four out of six games.
"I think both are emotional buildings, lots of energy. You get a goal, you get a bit of a lead and sometimes you have an advantage in that. I do think the road team's game has been simpler than maybe the home team. There's not a lot of room for over-passing the puck in this series. It's got to be a pretty direct game," he said.
So it all comes down to this. If the Jets can achieve all or even most of these seven things, they'll likely come out on top:
1. Light the lamp first:
Nashville has struck first in four of the six games, going 3-1. Winnipeg is 2-0 when they've been able to draw first blood. Both teams are so strong that falling behind early makes it difficult to come back, with the obvious exception of the wild Game 3 where the Jets trailed 3-0 before rallying to a 7-4 win. The early bird may, indeed, get the worm in Game 7.
Then again, let's not forget these squads can blitz at a moment's notice. The Jets scored three times in under five minutes in the second period of Game 5 Saturday en route to a 6-2 victory. Winnipeg finished second in goals-for (277) during the regular season, while the Preds were seventh (267). While there's reason to anticipate a defensive battle, don't be shocked if the heavy artillery makes some noise.
2. The 'Buyck stops here:
Connor Hellebuyck has shown a remarkable calmness in the nets and has looked particularly sharp after a loss. He seems comfortable in Bridgestone Arena, so the Jets will be counting on the Vezina Trophy candidate to use his big frame to block the net, limit the rebounds and make life difficult for the Predators.
"The National Goaltending League is a little bit like that. Over the course of 82, if you have a guy who has a real good night and a guy who doesn't, you can pretty much predict the winner on that. So when you get to an elimination game... goaltending is everything in almost every game. You had lots of chances but didn't score it? The other goaltender was probably pretty good. You think you played really, really well but you had a couple of breakdowns that were in the back of your net? It's all about goaltending anyway. It always has been," Maurice said Wednesday.
3. Halt the Ryan express:
Nashville's top line has been tremendous. Ryan Johansen is proving to be a dynamic two-way centre, while the incredible talent of Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson have repeatedly shined, especially in their Game 6 victory in Winnipeg. Winnipeg needs to find a way to keep the big horses in check and have their own top trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor match them every step of the way.
4. Pick apart Pekka:
Pekka Rinne bounced back from a nightmarish Game 5 with a rock-solid, 34-save shutout in Game 6. He's been up-and-down all series, including being pulled twice, so the Jets need to find a way to chip away at any confidence he's now feeling. Get traffic in front of him, get shots through from the point and yes, an early goal or two would certainly help the cause. If not, it will likely be another long night at the office for Winnipeg.
"It's just the one game, so it's hard. When you think about Game 7, as a team, as an individual, you're just going to give it all and do your best and do it as a team and trust your teammates. I think that's the best formula and focus on your own team," Rinne said Wednesday.
Oh, so close!Click to Expand
The numbers don't lie: Through the first six games of the series between the Jets and the Predators, it's simply too close to call in several categories:
Home wins: Jets 1, Predators 1
Away wins: Jets 2, Predators 2
Goals For: Jets 22, Predators 18
Even-strength shots: Jets 177, Predators 177
Even-strength shot attempts: Jets 338, Predators 338
Even-strength high-danger chances: Jets 66, Predators 65
PP %: Predators 4-for-15 (26.7%), Jets 4-for-18 (22.2%)
PK %: Predators 14-for-18 (77.7%), Jets 11-for-15 (73.3%)
Hits: Predators 144, Jets 141
Blocked shots: Jets 97, Predators 97
Faceoffs: Predators 52% (208-192), Jets 48% (192-208)
Corsi For (5-on-5): Jets 50.00%, Predators 50.00%
Corsi For (All situations): Predators 50.50%, Jets 49.50%
5. Shore up special teams:
Winnipeg's power play, a major source of strength all season, was a big letdown in the Game 6 loss. The Jets had three first-period chances and generated little in the way of scoring opportunities. If anything, those six unproductive minutes marked a huge shift in momentum as the Predators got stronger by killing them all off. There may not be a lot of penalties called in Game 7, but the Jets must find a way to win the battle of special teams with cleaner zone entries, better puck possession and retrieval and plenty of shots at Rinne.
6. Go north, young men:
At times, Winnipeg appears to have abandoned their typically successful north-south game in favour of much more high-risk east-west play. Too much dipsy-doodling through the neutral zone, cross-ice passes that are easily intercepted and not enough straight line skating and puck movement. They're making it easy on Nashville to defend. And they have to find a way to get back to the type of game that works best for them.
7. Get a gruff, rough Buff:
He was a beast in the first round against the Minnesota Wild and continued his onslaught in the first three games against Nashville — delivering punishing checks, wisely picking his spots for offensive rushes, policing the front of net and unleashing hard, accurate shots. He's the ultimate wild-card, a true game-changer unlike any other in the NHL who could single-handedly change the game if he's "on."
Assistant sports editor
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