This is the series every hockey fan was waiting for, and though many would rather it happen in the Western Conference final, the NHL’s top two regular season teams are expected to make what is usually the blandest round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs among the most exciting.
These teams, basically, can play you any sort of way. They can be physical, but also bring a load of speed — Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler is what a modern power forward should look and play like. They can also come at you with waves of offence, or shut you down with their great systems and blue lines — Nashville and Winnipeg were two of the four teams who allowed an average of less than 30 shots a game in Round 1.
And in goal, even though Pekka Rinne is the odds-on favourite to win the Vezina Trophy, the Preds don’t have much, if any, edge at the position as the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck was a finalist for the award and earned two shutouts in Games 4 and 5 to close out the Minnesota Wild.
The Jets are undoubtedly a team on the rise, but Nashville has been here before and as the reigning Western Conference champions, how much will that experience help them? We take a closer look at this epic Round 2 battle.
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Winnipeg: 51.5 CF% (10th), 54.72 GF% (3rd), .925 SP% (11th), 8.53 SH% (5th), 101.07 PDO (7th)
Nashville: 51.52 CF% (9th), 56.61 GF% (2nd), .936 SP% (1st), 8.19 SH% (9th), 101.74 PDO (3rd)
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.
|TEAM||OFFENCE (rank)||DEFENCE (rank)||POWER NUMBER (rank)|
|Winnipeg||6.00 (9th)||6.02 (6th)||6.01 (7th)|
|Nashville||6.38 (8th)||5.42 (13th)||5.90 (9th)|
Winnipeg: 23.4 PP% (5th), 81.8 PK% (9th), 273 GF (2nd), 216 GA (5th)
Nashville: 21.2 PP% (14th), 81.9 PK% (6th), 262 GF (8th), 204 GA (2nd)
Round 1 Strengths for Winnipeg: After the pickup of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, Winnipeg’s depth at centre reached a level that few NHL teams can match and that strength was on display against a banged-up Wild team in Round 1. Scheifele’s four goals led the Jets and Stastny’s three assists led all Winnipeg forwards. Little had two points in his first five playoff games, but when Nik Ehlers had to miss Game 5 Winnipeg had the depth to move Little off to the wing and run Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry as the third and fourth line pivots. It’s key at this time of year to be strong down the middle and in such a tight matchup in Round 2, it’s an area where Winnipeg has the advantage.
Not enough can be said about the presence of Dustin Byfuglien either. His average of five hits per game was the fourth-best of the opening round and he also contributed with five assists and his time on ice was more than a minute higher than it was in the regular season. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defenceman needs to keep that up against a Nashville team that has an all-around more potent offence than Minnesota.
Round 1 Strengths for Nashville: The Predators faced a stiffer test against the Avalanche than many expected and notably it was the depth players who made the biggest difference on the scoreboard. The third line of Austin Watson, Colton Sissons and Nick Bonino were three of Nashville’s top six scorers in Round 1 and more than made up for the underwhelming production from the likes of Kevin Fiala, Ryan Hartman and Craig Smith. You have to figure the latter three will start scoring, but if the Predators’ third line keeps this up, it will go a long way towards nullifying Winnipeg’s advantage down the middle.
Jets’ X-Factor: Every team is banged-up at this time of year and players regularly fight through injuries, but Tyler Myers, Tobias Enstrom, Mathieu Perreault and Nik Ehlers all missed time against Minnesota (Enstrom has been out since late-March). Jacob Trouba missed a couple weeks in March before returning to the lineup, while Dimitry Kulikov has been out since March 8 and isn’t skating again yet. How many injuries, bumps and bruises can this roster absorb?
In Round 2, Winnipeg faces a much more polished, experienced and deep Predators team that healthy scratched veteran Scott Hartnell, trade deadline pickup Ryan Hartman, and wildcard rookie sensation Eeli Tolvanen are options should injuries hit Nashville. If the injury bug keeps checking Winnipeg, the likes of Tucker Poolman, Sami Niku and Jack Roslovic are waiting in the wings — none of them have great experience, but all of them can skate and add speed. By the time Nashville reached the Stanley Cup final in 2017 they were extremely banged up and eventually outclassed by a more experienced Pittsburgh Penguins team — if these Jets struggle to stay healthy over the next 4-7 games, they could experience a similar fate against this year’s Predators.
Predators’ X-Factor: Nashville took 29 minor penalties in six games versus Colorado and were shorthanded 20 times, but were saved by a penalty kill that was successful 90 per cent of the time. Nashville was the most penalized team in the NHL during the regular season, but that lack of discipline could start catching up to them against better teams — and Winnipeg will be a great test. The Jets had the fifth-best PP in the regular season and it continued to be strong against Minnesota, converting on 23.1 per cent of its opportunities. Nashville has to be careful to not give the Jets power play too many chances in what should be a very tight series.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Winnipeg: Mark Scheifele (4-1-5), Dustin Byfuglien (0-5-5), Patrik Laine (2-2-4)
Nashville: Austin Watson (4-3-7), Colton Sissons (3-4-7), Filip Forsberg (4-2-6)