Predators and Jets could make up most exciting playoff series in quite some time.
It’s a shame that the top two teams in the NHL have to face off in just the second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but here we are. On the flip side, it could be worse, at least we’re getting a playoff matchup between the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets after all.
The Predators enter these Western Conference semi-finals after taking out the Colorado Avalanche in six games while the Jets handled the Minnesota Wild in five games. Come Game One on Friday, the Preds will have had four days of rest while the Jets will have had six days off, for what it’s worth.
The Predators took the regular season series three games to two with the Jets winning the final regular season matchup back on March 25 in a shootout. Each time these two sides matched up during the regular season they lit the lamp at an incredible rate combining for 41 goals with Nashville ultimately out scoring Winnipeg 22-19 overall.
It’s really pretty simple, these two teams have unmatched firepower when it comes down to it. Winnipeg finished the regular season averaging the second most goals per game (3.33) while Nashville averaged 3.18 goals per game which was good enough for the eighth highest average in the league.
To finish among the top eight in the league in goals per game and one-two in the league standings it’s pretty safe to assume the two teams can shoot the puck as well. The Jets’ shooting percentage of 10.3 percent was the fourth best in the league while the Preds’ mark of 9.9 percent placed them in the No. 9 spot.
Winnipeg’s Two-Headed Monster
Of the 273 goals the Jets scored during the regular season, Patrik Laine scored 44 of them for the second highest goal total in the league. That isn’t too bad for a player that turned 20-years-old last week playing in just his second season in the NHL. He led the league in power play goals as well with 20, but more on the Jets’ insane power play in a bit.
With Laine’s age, overall ability to find the back of the net and his 44 goal campaign grabbing most of the attention, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Blake Wheeler finished ninth in league scoring with 23 goals and 68 assists. Only one other player in the NHL managed 68 assists during the regular season and that was Claude Giroux.
For comparison, Laine and Wheeler combined for 161 points on the year. The Preds’ scoring was led by Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson who combined for 125 points.
Laine managed one goal and three assists in his five games played against the Preds during the regular season while Wheeler posted two goals and four assists in his five games played.
Perhaps the scariest part about these two is that they don’t even skate on the same line during 5-on-5 action – they did so for just 215:22 during the regular season – which shows you how deep this team is up front.
If Nashville can bring just one of Wheeler or Laine down a gear it will have a great chance at advancing to the conference final. It’s a big ask however as no team has figured out how to slow those two down this year.
The Vezina Finalists Battle
While most eyes will be looking at the battles between the likes of Ryan Johansen and Wheeler or Forsberg and Laine, the most intense battle may become between the pipes.
Both Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck were named Vezina Trophy Finalists earlier in the month. The 24-year-old Hellebuyck posted career numbers in what was his third season in the league with a record of 44-11-9, a save percentage of .924 while allowing 2.36 goals per contest. Rinne played in eight fewer games during the regular season with a record of 42-13-4, a save percentage of .927 and a goals allowed average of 2.31.
Hellebuyck has started the postseason just as he closed out the regular season with a .924 save percentage stopping 270 of the 279 shots he has faced. Rinne and the Preds had a bad outing in Game Three against the Avalanche skewing his postseason save percentage of .909 as he has allowed 14 goals on 323 shots faced.
While Jets and Predators lit it up against one another in their five regular season matchups, it’s worth pointing out just badly Hellebuyck struggled against Nashville.
Rinne certainly wasn’t lights out against the Jets as he went 3-1-0 allowing 3.52 goals per game to go along with a .901 save percentage, but Hellebuyck’s numbers really jump out. The Michigan native went 2-2-0 in five games played against the Predators posting a save percentage of just .882 and a goals allowed average of 3.91.
We didn’t necessarily see a Vezina Trophy winning performance from either of these goaltenders during the regular season series. While both the Preds and Jets should light the lamp at a crazy rate throughout this second-round matchup, perhaps just one Vezina-like performance from either one of these puck stoppers could be the difference maker.
How The Predators Win This Series
It goes without saying that Nashville’s first-line needs to continue to tick for the Preds to win this series just like it would take to win any series. Also, yes, the second-line needs to get going to take pressure off of the third-line which dominated the Avalanche. And of course, only one goal scored from a defenseman in a six-game series like what happened against Colorado likely won’t cut it against this far better Jets squad.
Those things will all come into play throughout this series, but they certainly won’t matter as much if Nashville makes a habit of going to the penalty box.
Winnipeg’s power play is its most dangerous weapon and its headlined by Laine.
The Jets’ man advantage finished fifth in the league with a 23.4 percent success rate and went 6-for-19 against the Preds scoring at least one power play goal in each of the team’s five regular season meetings.
Laine and Wheeler man the Jets’ power play with Laine posted on the left-circle just like Alex Ovechkin does for the Washington Capitals. Wheeler serves as the quarterback of the top unit and finished the regular season with 40 points on the power play. You’ll see Wheeler and others trying to find Laine at the circle more often than not each time the Jets go on the power play. You’ll also have the idea that the style is far too one-dimensional to be successful, but those numbers don’t lie
Our friends over at On The Forecheck did a super deep-dive into the Winnipeg power play, its tendencies and overall style that’s certainly worth taking a look at.
The Predators’ penalty kill was great during the regular season and is coming off the series win over the Avalanche allowing two goals on 20 shorthanded situations. It’s passed the test throughout the year, but Nashville can’t fall back into the habit of being the most penalized team in the NHL as it was during the regular season to get out of this series alive.
It seems simple, but staying out of the penalty box should be priority No. 1.
So, Which Side Has The Edge?
On paper, there really isn’t too much to separate these two sides and throughout the regular season they delivered epic, tight-knit battles.
Nashville and Winnipeg are loaded with firepower both on their blue lines and up and down their forward groups. Goals will be scored at high-rate, the chippiness will be at an all-time high and the headline throughout the series will be centered around just how fast these two teams play.
One thing that does stick out is the fact that the Preds have all of the experience, plus home-ice, on their side. The Jets are coming off of their first playoff series win since relocating from Atlanta in 2011 while the Preds are of course coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final last year.
It’s always tough to gauge whether or not experience truly plays a factor, but there is no doubting the fact that the Preds will be a bit more settle in their dressing room come Friday night in comparison to the Jets.
Game One is set for 7:00 p.m. CST in Nashville and can be seen on NBCSN.