On Friday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, the Winnipeg Jets won the opener of the Central Division final against the Nashville Predators.
But if you relied solely on statistics, you never would have known it.
Nashville outshot Winnipeg 48-19, outhit them 29-22, won 66 per cent of the face-offs and had three power play opportunities to none for the Jets and yet Winnipeg scored the first three goals of the game and hung on to knock off the Predators 4-1.
Fortunately for Winnipeg, there are indeed nights when stats are for losers.
Once again it was the brilliance of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck that was the difference in the outcome. The young Vezina Trophy candidate was sharp right from the opening face-off and without him, there was no telling how things might have unfolded.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “Obviously, they had a lot of zone time, but we took advantage of our opportunities and Connor (Hellebuyck) was outstanding. Obviously we have some things to fix and Connor won that game for us tonight. He was awesome. But we’re definitely happy with the win.”
In the opening period, the Jets were outshot 20-4 but after 20 minutes, the visitors went to the intermission with a 1-0 lead.
On Winnipeg’s fourth shot of the period, Brandon Tanev gave the Jets that 1-0 advantage as he converted a rebound at the side of the net after great play by Bryan Little.
Nashville dominated the period. Not only did they get 20 shots at Connor Hellebuyck, they outhit Winnipeg 17-9 and won 73 per cent of the face-offs. Still, the Jets got the first goal and that set the stage for an odd night.
In the second period, the Predators outshot the Jets 16-12, but Winnipeg scored two unanswered goals.
Paul Stastny got the first at 9:01 after a terrific rush by Nikolaj Ehlers. Patrik Laine picked up an assist and Winnipeg had a 2-0 lead. Then, at 17:51, Blake Wheeler broke into the Press zone, dealt the puck to Mark Scheifele who toe-dragged and on his forehand ripped a perfectly-placed wrister past Pekka Rinne and the Jets were up 3-0. Kyle Connor also added an assist as Winnipeg found itself 20 minutes away from stealing one on the road.
In the second period, the Jets were much better, but still not as solid as the home side. Winnipeg outhit Nashville 9-6 and won enough face-offs to lower the Preds proficiency to 70.6 per cent, but the Predators still couldn’t believe they were down 3-0.
Meanwhile, Predators head coach Peter Laviolette had seen enough. He pulled Rinne, a Vezina Trophy candidate and replaced him with rookie Juuse Saros. Meanwhile, Hellebuyck had now played eight periods — 160 minutes — without allowing a goal.
But that was soon to end.
At the 1:26 mark of the third period, Kevin Fiala found himself alone in front of the Jets net and he tapped a pass from Kyle Turris past Hellebuyck and suddenly it was 3-1 with plenty of time to play.
What made it even more frightening for the Jets was the fact Nashville had dominated play and had actually drilled two great scoring chances off the post. At some point, Nashville was going to find a way to beat Hellebuyck. The fact Nashville got the first five shots of the third period made it all very scary indeed.
But Winnipeg hung on. The Jets had more opportunities than two third-period shots might indicate, but whenever Winnipeg took the puck through the neutral zone, they simply dumped it deep and sent in two checkers. They spent the final eight minutes killing the clock and when Laviolette pulled Saros and went to six attackers with 2:29 to play, Nashville seemed desperate.
However, the Jets shot-blockers and Hellebuyck kept Nashville at bay and then at 19:24, Scheifele won a race to a loose puck and scored his second goal of the game into the empty net. That sealed it and the Jets had a 1-0 series lead.
Nashville had three power play opportunities to none for the Jets. NHL officiating remains a mystery and rules seem to be made up as the officials go along. If you don’t know hockey, you would have no idea what’s within the rules or outside them.
Regardless, Hellebuyck made 47 saves and that’s all that matters.
Game 2 in the series goes Sunday at 6 p.m. at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. It’s on CBC.
By Scott Taylor
Photo by James Carey Lauder