Jettisoned: Predators bow out in Game 7, Jets punch Conference Finals ticket

 

Well there you have it, folks. The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs has come to a close with an almost-fitting end to the series that played out exactly how we thought it would without ever really playing out how we thought it would.

Perhaps the most hyped matchup of the postseason, it was nearly-universally agreed upon that Winnipeg/Nashville would go seven games, but how we got there was anything but predictable. A seven-game series that saw only two games end in one-goal margins (those in fact being the only games that ended with a margin of less than three tallies) and was more a story of attack/counter-attack. Nearly every game swung wildly to one team’s favor, usually on the back of explosive starts that took the wind out of the sails of the opponent before they knew what had happened.

Game 4 was a tight 2-1 affair, though hardly memorable on the back of a 7-4 gongshow victory in Game 3 for Winnipeg on home ice. Game 1 and Games 5-7 were all complete visiting team dominations silencing notoriously loud buildings. Game 2 was really our only look at what many expected from this series, with Nashville grabbing a thrilling 5-4 victory in double-overtime on home ice.

But since we’re here, let’s take a look at how this strange series came to a close.

Winnipeg controlled things early, hemming Nashville on their own side of center ice for most of the opening minutes. The Predators looked to be skating in deep sand, oftentimes unable to advance the puck forward at all, thanks to a stifling forecheck from the Jets and some careless puck control of their own doing. Surely, though, Pekka Rinne would be able to help his team survive the early problems and gain their footing…

Then Tyler Myers sent up a prayer from below the goal line to Rinne’s left that deflected into the net off of the stunned Nashville netminder, and just like that we had a 1-0 game 8:41 into the first period. But, again, no problem. We’re less than halfway through the first period, it’s just a one-goal deficit, Rinne will obviously shake this one off and…

2:06 later Rinne inexplicably abandons the near post after stopping a Paul Stastny stuff attempt, the rebound landing right back on his blade for him to chip over the pad and into the net for a Charmin Ultra-Soft 2-0 goal. Has anyone seen the wheels for this bus lately? We seem to have misplaced them.

Peter Laviolette, either wishing to settle things down without wasting a precious timeout, or knowing enough about his goaltender’s complete inability to recover from shaky starts in playoff games to realize that this ship needed immediate abandoning (third pull in the series for Rinne, you be the judge), yanked the big Finn in favor of the little Finn, inserting Juuse Saros into the net for the remainder of the game.

To their credit, the Predators responded to the move by finally picking up their game. P.K. Subban first drew a penalty, then fired a one-time Howitzer off the post and in on the resulting power play, bringing his team back within one with just over four minutes to play in the first.

Unfortunately for Nashville, this only seemed to fire up the opposition, with the Winnipeg defense vacuum-sealing their end from that point on, and Connor Hellebuyck dispelling any further offensive chances that came his way. The two goaltenders spent the next 20+ minutes countering everything thrown their way (which admittedly was not a lot as the two teams were basically stuck in a neutral zone traffic jam).

Late in the second period the Jets grabbed the momentum back when Blake Wheeler jumped on a turnover (a theme in this one, with the Predators committing 24 vs Winnipeg’s paltry 10) and hung Subban out to dry in no man’s land, sending a pass over to Scheifele who quickly lifted one over the shoulder of Saros to regain the two-goal lead with 2:10 left to play in the second frame.

The second period was really the finest display of a brilliant tactic Winnipeg utilized all night long, essentially using their team speed to actually slow the game down. No matter what Nashville tried to do, every puck carrier was instantly met by at least one, often multiple Jets. Passing lanes were non-existent due to some incredible defensive stickwork, and even when there appeared to be open space, it would close up immediately, leaving the Predators dumbfounded, and holding them to just six shots in the second period.

The Preds did gain some offensive traction in the third, but Hellebuyck always had the answer and the defense in front of him made sure he had a clear line of sight to every shot and limited follow-up opportunities for anything that their goaltender didn’t manage to grab onto. Of note, Dustin Byfuglien played a lights-out game defensively, basically making it impossible for any Predators player to get to the front of the net to set up screens. Toby Enstrom was also stellar, making countless beautiful stick and positioning plays throughout the night to break up some of the few rushes Nashville was able to start.

Nashville fought and clawed for every chance all throughout the third period, but their efforts came to a screeching halt at the 11:59 mark when Paul Stastny tallied his second goal of the game on Winnipeg’s lone power play of the night, banging home the rebound from a Laine blast before Saros could close down the five hole. That was Stastny’s fifth goal of this series, continuing a terrific playoff run for the deadline acquisition (lol remember that time the Blues traded him to the Jets for a lottery-protected first round pick?).

Mark Scheifele would add the 5-1 empty netter to tally his league-leading 11th goal of the playoffs with 2:33 remaining, but even with the extra man on the ice the Predators were just lost trying to find the answer to Winnipeg’s flawless defensive scheme.

So Winnipeg takes the series largely on the strength of winning three-of-four games in Nashville, all by convincing scores (4-1, 6-2, 5-1), and move on to face probably the only team in the Western Conference that can match their speed, the ‘Remember when we didn’t exist last year?’ Vegas Golden Knights in the Conference Finals. Game 1 of that series comes to you this Saturday night (May 12th) at 7 p.m. ET with DTFR recap coverage brought to you by @nlanciani53.