Paul Maurice has been here before. Not with this team, mind you, but he’s seen Game 7.
Back during the 2008-09 campaign, Maurice stood watch over a young Carolina Hurricanes club, albeit one a touch older than his current Winnipeg Jets group, and led them to Game 7 victories in the first round over the uber-experienced New Jersey Devils before dispatching of the Bruins in Game 7 of the second round, this two seasons before many from that same Boston group went on to win the Stanley Cup. But the thing about those two winner-take-all post-season victories, as Maurice wittily noted just hours before the Jets boarded a plane and headed to Nashville for a series- and potentially season-deciding contest against the Predators, is they come with a qualifier.
“None of those (wins) in this decade,” Maurice said of his perfect Game 7 record in the NHL.
He will, of course, have an opportunity to coach a team to a Game 7 victory for the first time in nine years when his Jets square off against the Predators on Thursday evening. Doing so, however, is going to require Winnipeg to play a more straightforward game, one that’s more about doing what’s effective than it is making it look pretty.
As we’ve seen throughout the back-and-forth six-game series, the game’s opening goal has been crucial, particularly when it’s been scored by a Nashville team that has appeared content to fluster and frustrate their younger opponents by clogging the neutral zone and buying into playing as a five-man defensive unit. Oddly enough, though, in a series between two teams with 60 combined wins on home ice, it’s been the road team who has often been able to remove the flash from their game and emerge victorious. Winnipeg has taken Games 1 and 5 at the Bridgestone Arena, while Nashville won Games 4 and 6 at Bell MTS Place.
“Both are emotional buildings, lots of energy,” Maurice said. “You get a goal or you get a little bit of a lead and sometimes you have the advantage in that I do think that 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 has to be a pretty direct game.”
The trading of road wins is only one of the patterns in this series, however. Also of note is how razor-thin the overall separation between the two teams has been, as well as the fact no team has been able win consecutive games in this series. After Winnipeg stole the aforementioned series opener on the road, the Predators and Jets traded victories on through Game 6, which has us arriving at the seventh game. Playing a part in that is that both clubs have been quick to forget their stumbles — Pekka Rinne has twice shrugged off being pulled, while the Jets managed to shake off an overtime defeat and broke through one near-shutout with a six-goal outburst.
“It’s really gone back and forth throughout the whole series with teams forgetting the last game,” Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “That’s something we talked before the playoffs even started, how momentum doesn’t really carry forward between games. It’s a fresh game, new slate.”
And it seems that’s exactly how the Jets, who have a combined 12 games of Game 7 experience on the roster, are approaching the win-or-go-home affair. Asked about Game 7, Nikolaj Ehlers called the opportunity exciting. Trouba added that it’s not a situation everyone gets to experience during their career. And Patrik Laine said the approach, as it has been throughout the playoffs, is that of any other game, even if this one might mean a whole lot more when it comes to the fate of the Jets this season.
“It’s just another game for all of us,” Laine said. “It is something to think about, that if you don’t win you’re out. But you can’t think about that because then you’re going to be scared on the ice, scared if you make a mistake or something like that. You have to be confident and play without fear.”
So, with that said, as Maurice and his Jets ride into the third Game 7 of the coach’s NHL career, what’s the big message? Well, to hear Maurice tell it, there is none, and the attitude of approaching it with excitement — the same excitement they’ve had going into every single playoff game thus far — goes right up to the top.
“There’s no big speech or departure from our game,” Maurice said. “The important one that was delivered all year was to enjoy what we do, have the confidence that you’re going to go out, perform at your best and certainly (give) your best effort. But to enjoy it. The whole part. The nerves before the game, tension of the game, excitement of the game. I think it’s such an important thing. You can’t be on pins and needles. You have to feel good and be excited about it.”
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