NASHVILLE — Peter Laviolette wants the Nashville Predators to play like they did in Game 1, when they owned the puck but lost anyway.
Paul Maurice predicts it will look like Game 2, a double-overtime, action-packed nail biter.
Ryan Ellis would love it to resemble Game 4 or 6, when Nashville was against the wall and on the road.
All the Predators say they can’t allow another Game 5.
Laviolette describes each game in a playoff series as pages in a book. They get turned and you move on, never flipping back.
“For you to write a story on the series, you have to write six different stories,” says coach Maurice, reading from the same novel.
Game Seven — the best two words in sport — is about to be written, and we’ll categorize it as a mystery.
“The first six games don’t matter now,” says Ryan Johansen.
Here is what will matter to the Winnipeg Jets Thursday in Nashville, where they’ll try to steal a third game in the best series of these playoffs so far.
1. Draw first blood
It feels a little hackneyed to write about the importance of scoring first. Yeah, genius, if Team A has a goal and Team B doesn’t, that kinda favours Team A.
But in a series so slippery to predict, the first goal should at least give us the style of play to expect the rest of the way, and a smart bet for who’s going to Vegas.
“You always want to play with the lead,” Nashville centre Johansen says. “It’s very tough in this league to come back on teams, especially this time of year with the goaltending that Winnipeg has and the depth they have.”
The side that has got on the board first has won five of six in this tug-o-war, the Jets’ Game 3 classic in Winnipeg being the gloriously memorable outlier.
Of the 170 all-time Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team that scores first is 126-44 (.741).
“The first 20 minutes is so important now. I feel like when I was younger maybe I looked at the bigger picture. I looked at the game coming up. But for us, our first period hasn’t been all that good this series,” says Jets winger Mathieu Perreault, 1-3 lifetime in Game 7s. “We’ve just got to take on that first 20, make sure we own that and quiet their building and go from there.”
The Jets desire a freewheeling, puck-peppering speed game regardless of the score, while the Predators prefer to snatch a quick lead, then clog up the neutral zone and rely on their world-class D corps and their Vezina favourite to bog the Jets’ stream.
“[Scoring first] allows you to play a different game,” Preds coach Laviolette admits. “You’re always working toward that — trying to score, trying to get it going in the first period, get a goal early.”
2. National Goaltending League
With the total shots on goal so tight (216-210 in favour of the Jets), the team that dresses the better Vezina finalist Thursday should win.
“The National Goaltending League is a little bit like that,” says coach Maurice. “You had lots of chances but didn’t score it? The other goaltender was probably pretty good. You think you played really, really well, but you had a couple of breakdowns that were in the back of your net? It’s all about goaltending anyway. It always has been.”
Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has been pulled twice, swung his stick wildly once, and still managed to compose himself for a shutout Monday when his back was against the wall.
Connor Hellebuyck, too, has looked shaky at times and impenetrable at others (see: Game 1).
“[Hellebuyck] doesn’t seem to let anything faze him,” Maurice says. “All year he’s bounced back after every game we’ve lost to play a big game for us. We expect that from him. I’m sure we’ll see him bring his best.”
Hellebuyck admitted this week that he’s not a fan of the TV-accommodating 8:30 p.m. local starts, and he’s lost two of them in this series. Game 7 goes at 7 p.m. No excuses.
“I really like the afternoon games, but 7 o’clock’s not bad either,” Hellebuyck says. “If you have adrenaline, it doesn’t matter what time it is — you’re gonna love it.”
3. Make special teams your specialty
How differently would Game 6 have unfolded if the Jets had been able to strike just once on the three first-period power plays they were given?
“You score a goal, you score on the first power play and you’re feeling good,” Perreault says. “Sometimes you have that mindset, it’s just going to be easy, it’s just going to be given to us. I feel like they played with more desperation than we did and they showed it.”
The Predators’ 84.2 per cent PK (not Subban) was excellent with its aggressive approach in that win and has been superior to the Jets’ (75 per cent) this post-season. Rinne is reading the Patrik Laine one-timer setup all the way, so look for Winnipeg to try to feed Mark Scheifele in the slot.
“They put a lot of pressure on us and we weren’t really able to get anything going,” Perreault says. “But this power play has been great all year, so I’m not worried at all.”
4. Christmas is just another day
Maurice has promised no grand pre-game speech, and players in both rooms have actually used the phrase “just another game.”
Except it’s totally not.
Game 7 is Christmas for a hockey player. It’s what you pretend you’re in when you’re eight years old on a driveway with a tennis ball attached to your Titan.
“You try to take as many unknowns away from them as possible. We’ll fly at the same time. I know what I’m eating tomorrow night. You do as many things in your routine as you possibly can,” Maurice says.
“The guys that have had a few more Christmases will sleep a little bit better. The guys that are closer to five years old will be up a little later.”
It’s a simpler, straight-ahead game. Fewer risks. More responsible. More discipline. Yet, somehow, fiercer.
“Defence is what wins championships,” says Johansen, dusting off an old chestnut. “You look at every team that’s been successful in any sport. It hasn’t just been offense. It showed in Game 4 and Game 6. When we played great defence, we were very successful. We need to defend really hard and then when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
5. Embrace the pressure, but don’t try to be a hero
Don’t believe the even-keel spiel. There will be butterflies, the honest ones will say.
“If you don’t have that in you,” Paul Stastny says, “I think you’re losing a love for the game.”
Says Filip Forsberg, “I think we got 20-plus guys in here who want to be the hero.”
So, it’s that balance between calling upon your nervous energy for good but not trying to singlehandedly go full Justin Williams. Don’t over-pass. Play direct.
The pomp and circumstance of a raucous Bridgestone Arena won’t make that easy.
“It’s hard to stay level and keep your emotions in check when you’ve got some famous singer doing the anthem and you’ve got all this hype.
[Editor’s Note: Justin Timberlake is in town, and he has a night off touring. Just sayin’.]
You want to go out there and score a goal,” says Johansen.
“I think that might be a reason we haven’t played as strongly at home, but we just need to be focused on our game tomorrow, and not worry about the distractions.”
All that tension and excitement is important, argues Maurice, a perfect 2-0 in Game 7s: “You can’t be on pins and needles. You’ve got to feel good and be excited about it.”
Laine says if you play scared of making a mistake, then you’ll make one.
“You just gotta be confident,” says Laine. “It’s probably going to be nerve-wracking. Well, not for us, but for the fans.”
6. Lineup uncertainty
Predators fourth-line centre Mike Fisher, who has been much better in this series than in Round 1, left Game 6 with an undisclosed injury and hasn’t skated since. Nashville is keeping mum.
If Fisher’s out, Nick Bonino’s ice time should climb as an important shutdown guy. The Scheifele line, quieted in Game 6, must shine.
“[Bonino’s] value goes so far inside of our room, not only offensively like you saw last round, but defensively like you’re seeing this round,” Laviolette says. “The situational play, the fact that it’s the bigger the moment, the more he steps up.”
Look for Calle Jarnkrok to centre Ryan Hartman and Scott Hartnell on the Preds’ fourth unit. Nashville is a perfect 2-0 when Hartnell dresses, and the cagey veteran knocked the juice out of rookie Kyle Connor’s game with a monstrous hit Monday.
“There’s nothing like giving a (hard), clean body check. That’s part of the game, it’s always been and always will be. I’m sure it’s going to be a heavy, big Game 7, and I’m looking forward to that,” Hartnell says.
“Me and Hartsy (Hartman) will be parking our asses right in front of the net.”
7. Leave no regrets
Ellis figures the Jets’ wins are a result of the Predators drifting from their execution for 10 or 15 minutes.
Maurice says these do-or-die tilts tend to turn on commitment to a simplicity in your own game more than emotion.
Hellebuyck envisions 38 tired men slugging it out, pouring their hearts into every shift.
“Safe is death in this room,” says Hartnell, speaking for both clubs. “We have to go out and play as hard as we can, play as smart as we can and go out and get the W.”
Momentum is an illusion, but the dream? That’s now real.
“You’ve been dreaming of these games forever, and to finally get a chance to play in one, it’s awesome,” says Forsberg.
Perreault thinks all the way back to when he first picked up a hockey stick.
“I was five years old. You put yourself in that position where you play a Game 7 in the playoffs,” he says.
“This is what we play for. So, this should be the most fun we’ve had all year.”