Three points separated the Nashville Predators from the Winnipeg Jets in the regular season. Three tallies made up the difference between the two teams’ goal differentials. Both the Predators and Jets were solid at home and good on the road. But through six games of the best-of-seven to decide which team moves on to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final, the series has been even tighter than the regular season numbers could have ever suggested.
To wit, four goals, four shots and eight shot attempts separate the two sides following Game 6. The scoring chances have been about dead even and there’s a difference of three high-danger chances following six games. The teams have traded wins, neither managing two in a row, with Winnipeg winning with pure skill and Nashville taking wins with dandy defensive efforts. The Jets have won two games on the road. The Predators, likewise, have come into Bell MTS Place and silenced the crowd on two occasions, including Monday’s 4-0 win that drew the series level at three games apiece.
But, really, no one should be surprised this series is going the distance. “Everyone expected it when two of the top teams from the league are playing each other,” Jets center Paul Stastny said. “I’m sure that’s what people wanted was Game 7. And that’s what they’re going to get.”
It almost wasn’t that way, though. Winnipeg headed into Game 6 with a chance to close out the series, an opportunity to advance on home ice, where they’ve been excellent all season. An early goal by Viktor Arvidsson, a tally originally waved off for a high stick but awarded after video review, took the raucous home crowd out of the game little more than a minute into the opening frame, and from there it played out just as the Predators’ previous road victory had in Game 4. Nashville took a methodical approach, clogging the neutral zone and snuffing out Winnipeg’s speed game.
“They played a good game tonight, got out to that lead and it’s just tough to come back,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “We couldn’t find a way to get that first one. I think our belief when we’re able to get that first one, we’re going to get rolling and come back in this game. We just couldn’t get the first one.”
Not that Winnipeg didn’t come close. On an early play, one of three the Jets earned in the first frame, Wheeler put a cross-ice pass right on Stastny’s tape, but he failed to get all of it and deflected the puck rather harmlessly towards the pads of Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne. If he had scored there, Stastny said, the game would have been a different story. But the failure to connect on the first power play, the second power play and the third power play — three separate man advantages that all had the same zone-entry problem — killed any momentum Winnipeg tried to build in the opening period.
“The power play was just a microcosm of the way we played,” Stastny said. “We just weren’t moving as well, weren’t as sharp as we wanted to be.”
The end result, the first shutout victory for a road team in Winnipeg all season, speaks to that, to be sure. And while some will say the Jets, a novice Stanley Cup contender battling against a the defending Western Conference champion Predators, blew their opportunity or lacked the experience to get the job done in a potentially series-ending and season-altering contest, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wasn’t lamenting missed opportunities. Instead, he pointed to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle-tested team and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion that was ousted from the playoffs on home ice against the Washington Capitals Monday night.
“Pretty good team, they’ve learned all those lessons you’re supposed to learn — killer instinct, all the words that will come out tonight that we didn’t get,” Maurice said. “And they lost. It’s playoff hockey.”
The next test for the Jets, however, will be preparing for a brand-new experience. The organization has seen its first Game 5 this post-season, Monday was its first Game 6 and Thursday will be its first Game 7. So, while the Predators have learned Game 7 lessons dating back to the 2015-16 post-season — they defeated the Anaheim Ducks but lost to the San Jose Sharks in series-deciding contests — the Jets haven’t yet had to travel down this path. But the message is simple: Winnipeg wants to play their game and not allow Nashville to dictate the pace of play.
“We just have to do whatever it takes to win,” Jets winger Patrik Laine said. “And I think everyone is going to realize that it’s pretty much do or go home. It’s exciting, and we’ve got to be all jacked up for the game and I think everyone will be.”
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