In pushing all hype aside surrounding Vegas, San Jose, Boston and Pittsburgh, this Central Division showdown featuring the league’s top two teams should provide hockey fans with the greatest entertainment value of all 15 playoff series.
Nashville – the 2017-18 President’s Trophy winners as the team with the best record upon completion of the regular season – will host the second place Winnipeg Jets in games one and two from Nashville later this week.
Unfortunately for those wanting to see the league’s best two teams duke it out in the Stanley Cup Final, this matchup comes just over a month too early. Number one in the league will face off against number two, in round number two.
In a series that many are predicting to be the highest scoring of the postseason, the team ranked number in the West in scoring (Winnipeg) will do battle with the third ranked offence (Nashville). The teams averaged eight goals in their five regular season matchups. Nashville took the season series three-games-to-two.
With added strength down the middle, both Nashville and Winnipeg will be difficult to defend, as the defending Western Conference Champion added centermen Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino to their potent attack, while the Jets picked up Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, beefing up their centre ice position.
The Predators boast arguably the deepest defensive corps, with P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm rounding out their top four. Winnipeg has been without four of their top six defenders for the majority of the playoffs, but have received some good news on the injury and suspension front in recent days.
Josh Morrissey will return for game one of the Western Conference Semifinals after fulfilling the suspension handed his way for a high crosscheck – a penalty that he feels was a “complete accident”. Toby Enstrom also skated with the Jets in a non-contact jersey, while Tyler Myers returned to Winnipeg’s lineup following a lower-body injury suffered in game three against Minnesota.
Nik Ehlers also skated in a non-contact jersey after missing game five of the first round following a strong case of ‘malaise’.
Two Vezina Finalists will go head-to-head between the pipes as 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck (44-11-9) will look to one-up his counterpart, 35-year-old Pekka Rinne (42-13-4). After being pulled in game three, Hellebuyck has bounced back mightily with back-to-back shutouts to close out Minnesota’s season.
Youngsters Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele will look to lead the way for their respective club’s offences, as the two teams with the loudest buildings and two of the most enthusiastic fanbases prepare to go to war in a series bound for seven games.
The NHL is expected to release second round series details mid-week.
By Carter Brooks
Photo by Jeff Miller