Get your popcorn ready. We all know what this series really is: the unofficial Stanley Cup final. Yes, thanks to the current divisional playoff format, we’re treated to the No. 1 and No. 2 overall seeds in the NHL battling each other in Round 2, as the 117-point Nashville Predators host the 114-point Winnipeg Jets in the Central Division final.
Hey, the series is happening whether we want it now or later, so we may as well embrace what should be appointment viewing between two stacked teams. At least Round 2 should give us fresher, healthier versions of the Jets and Preds than we we’d see in the Cup final.
How The Jets Win
One word to describe Winnipeg’s performance in Round 1 versus the Minnesota Wild: overwhelming. Few teams in the NHL can match the Jets’ blend of big-time star power, size, speed and depth. They keep coming in wave after wave. It’s almost unfair that coach Paul Maurice can spread Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine across two lines, with the likes of Bryan Little qualifying as a “third-liner.” The Jets got goals from 11 different skaters over five games in Round 1. The fact they did so without Connor or Ehlers finding twine yet is a testament to this team’s depth. Their power play was formidable in the regular season and was a factor against the Wild in Round 1, humming above the 23-percent mark.
No team can match the Predators’ defense corps, but the Jets are no slouch in that regard either, with Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba leading the way. Byfuglien in particular was a monster against the Wild. And, in Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets have a steady, confident goaltender who makes most of the saves he’s supposed to make. Hellebuyck didn’t face many high-danger scoring chances relative to other starting netminders this season, but he gave his team what it so desperately needed: a reliable backbone. His save percentage was .911 or higher in every month. He had a .924 SP before the all-star break and a .923 SP after it.
How The Predators Win
Part of what makes this Central Division matchup so fascinating is that these teams win differently. The Predators don’t have a superstar forward. Their top attackers, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, would be the fourth-best Winnipeg forwards at most. But, boy, can Nashville ever roll four lines. Five, even. It’s telling that the Preds’ third line of Colton Sissons, Nick Bonino and Austin Watson was their best in Round 1 against the Colorado Avalanche. That’s not an insult to Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Arvidsson or Kevin Fiala-Kyle Turris-Craig Smith. It shows us how versatile Nashville’s forward corps is. Any trio can beat you, and every forward forechecks aggressively while remaining defensively conscientious.
But who are we kidding here? The Preds’ hallmarks are their defense and goaltending. Even though their elite top-four didn’t light it up in Round 1, there’s no topping P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. Consider that Nos. 5 and 6 blueliners Alexei Emelin and Matt Irwin averaged just 11:28 and 10:05, respectively, in six games against the Avs. Coach Peter Laviolette deploys his Big Four for about 50 minutes a night, more than 80 percent of a game. The Jets’ forecheckers have to accept that they’ll be battling the best of the best almost all game.
And Pekka Rinne, the probable Vezina Trophy winner, is a huge part of Nashville’s success, not just because he’s so good at stopping pucks but also because his strong puckhandling synchs him beautifully with his defensemen. Rinne started slowly against Colorado but posted a .951 SP over the final three games, including a shutout in the Game 6 clincher.
Five Things To Watch
1. Stars on ‘O’ versus stars on ‘D.’ Every Jets zone entry will be a thrill ride. Laine versus Josi? Connor versus Ellis? Ehlers vs. Subban? Wheeler vs. Ekholm? Some of the very best forwards in the league will battle some of the very best D-men. It should be a ton of fun.
2. Can ‘Big Buff’ outshine Nashville’s blueline beasts? Byfuglien was such a tank at times in Round 1 that he seemed to be operating in a different stratosphere. He averaged five thunderous hits and more than 25 minutes per game. Nashville’s forwards aren’t afraid of anyone – but that doesn’t matter when you try to get past Byfuglien. He’s the hardest hitter in the sport, period.
3. Rinne vs. Hellebuyck: youth vs. experience. Rinne was the NHL’s best goalie this season and was all-world for most of the 2017 playoffs, too. He dealt with some yips on the road last spring, but he was excellent in two of three games in Denver in Round 1. Hellebuyck, meanwhile, is a Vezina finalist himself. He showed tremendous resolve for a youngster when he rebounded from being pulled in Game 3 to finishing off the Wild with consecutive shutouts. Goaltending profiles as a strength for both teams, so neither stopper can afford an off night.
4. Pandemonium at home. It’s difficult to top Smashville – unless you’re Bell MTS Place. The Predators and Jets have two of the wildest, most feverish home atmospheres in the sport – to the point it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nashville’s 4-3 advantage in home dates wind up the difference-maker in the series. You could make a case the first team to win a road game will be the team moving on to Round 3.
5. Who wins the trench war? Sissons-Bonino-Watson was the checking line of round 1, but Jets bottom-sixers such as Brandon Tanev, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp had some of the team’s best possession numbers against Minnesota, generating a lot more chances than they allowed. Both teams will use their bangers to soften up the other team’s star defenseman. The key will be to do so while staying out of the box. The Jets have an elite power play but also struggled to kill penalties in Round 1 versus Minnesota, albeit that’s a small sample size.
THN series prediction: Predators in seven.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES: