– one of the toughest arenas to play in as a visitor – in what was easily Winnipeg’s strongest full-team performance of the series.
It was a sensational night in Nashville for Winnipeg, who collected its first game seven victory in franchise history (original Jets or version 2.0). It was only the second game seven of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it was certainly a memorable one for General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, Head Coach Paul Maurice, and the players and fans of the only Canadian team remaining in the postseason.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The Winnipeg Jets had a chance to close out the Predators at home on Monday, but failed to do so, losing game six 4-0. But on Thursday evening in Nashville, it was a different story.
After a hesitant start to the first period, the Jets struck first. With 11:13 to play in the first period, big defenceman Tyler Myers made an educated decision to pinch at the blueline on a loose puck. That choice paid off, as the 6-foot-8 blueliner took the puck right to the Nashville net before tucking it past Pekka Rinne on just Winnipeg’s fourth shot of the game.
Just two minutes after Myers’ opening strike, newest Jet Paul Stastny outworked Nashville defencemen Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi to a loose puck, before generating a shot on net from the goal line. Rinne was unable to find the rebound as Stastny jammed his second shot of his shift into the open net, giving Winnipeg a 2-0 lead just halfway into the opening frame.
At that, Predators’ Head Coach Peter Laviolette had seen enough, and removed his all-star Vezina Finalist from the game, in favour of backup – and fellow countryman – Jusse Saros. Rinne’s removal from the game was the earliest pull in Stanley Cup Playoff game seven history.
The move proved rather exemplary as Saros turned aside all shots he faced for the remaining portion of the first period. With five minutes remaining in the period, Kyle Connor gently pushed Nashville’s P.K. Subban from behind as the defenceman was collecting a loose puck in his own zone. Subban flew to the ice and Connor was charged with a two minute cross checking minor.
With Connor in the box, Subban made good on the Predators’ second power play of the game, one-timing a point shot off the post and into the net past Hellebuyck. Subban’s slap shot midway through the power play certainly brought some life back into the golden crowd gathered at Bridgestone Arena. The first period ended with the Jets atop the Preds, 2-1.
Saros remained in the Nashville net to begin the second period, and put together a rather decent showing.
It was a scoreless, low-shooting second period for the majority of the frame, as Nashville went nearly 11 minutes without registering a shot on the Jets’ net. But in the dying minutes of the period, Winnipeg struck once again.
2:10 left to play in the second, Blake Wheeler collected a bouncing puck off of a Kyle Connor Nashville zone entry and moved it cross ice to Mark Scheifele. In anticipation of the pending pass, the 24-year-old opened himself up to his captain and one-timed the disc past Saros short side, just above the pad.
The goal was Scheifele’s sixth of the series – all of which have come in Nashville. It was also the first time that the young Finnish netminder was beaten in these 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I think when Scheif scored, we all kind of breathed a little easier,” Paul Stastny said of Scheifele’s goal immediately following the game. “But as a team I thought we played a hell of a game today. We executed the game plan that we wanted. We kind of let up a power play goal on a bad call, but then we scored a power play goal on a bad call. We made some big saves, kept the crowd out of it and stuck to our game plan.”
Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey was handed an interference call with a minute left in the frame, but the Jets managed to kill off the remainder of thier third penalty of the game in the final period. Nashville had not taken a penalty to that point in the game.
Midway through the final frame, Ryan Johansen took Nashville’s first penalty of the game – and it was a costly one. Much like the way that Subban got retribution on Connor for his cross-check, Patrik Laine got retribution on Johansen for his slash just 27 seconds later. In one-timing the puck on Saros, Laine produced a perfect rebound for ultimate trade deadline acquisition Paul Stastny to jam past the fill-in netminder, giving the Jets a three goal cushion.
With Saros on the bench for the extra attacker, Kyle Connor unselfishly dished a cross-ice pass to Scheifele, who buried his seventh road goal of the series into the yawning cage, sealing the deal for Winnipeg, and setting a record for the most goals as a visitor since 1926-27 in the process.
Although home records had been such a conversation point leading up to this first vs. second place showdown, all information was thrown out the window as the road teams picked up five of seven victories in this Western Conference Semifinal series.
“To win three games here… I don’t think I’ve won three games here in about four years,” said Stastny. “So doing it during a playoff run is pretty impressive. But we’re just one step closer to where we want to be. We’re excited but we’re not done. We know what we’ve got to do. We knew this would be a tough challenge in trying to beat the defending Stanley cup finalists.” In picking up his eighth victory of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Connor Hellebuyck bested fellow Vezina Trophy Finalist Pekka Rinne with 36 stops on 37 Nashville shots, improving his playoff record to 8-4-0.
Winnipeg will have very little time to rest and prepare for the third round, as the Jets fly back home Thursday evening and will have just one day to get ready for game one of the Western Conference Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Games one and two will be held at Bell MTS Place on Saturday and Monday, before the two conference rivals head out to Nevada for the third and fourth game. Games five and seven would be held in Winnipeg if needed, while Vegas would host game six. Puck drop is set for 7:00 P.M. central Saturday. The game can be viewed live on CBC and Sportsnet.
By Carter Brooks
Photos by James Carey Lauder and Jeff Miller