In a perfect world, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets would be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. On one hand, it’s a shame the top two regular-season teams have to meet so early in the playoffs but, on the other, the two titans have treated us to a close, nail-biting series in a second-round that has lacked those characteristics.
Out of 12 series to this point, Winnipeg and Nashville are giving us just the second Game 7.
“Excited and just waiting for the puck to drop,” Patrik Laine said the day before the series-deciding game. “So much on the line, it’s going to be a tight one.”
The Jets sniper couldn’t be any more accurate. Whoever moves on between these two will be the instant favourite to win the Stanley Cup, though the Vegas Golden Knights won’t be a slouch in the conference final. But it’s hard to imagine any other series being as close as this Jets-Predators showdown.
As Andrew Berkshire wrote earlier on in this series, Nashville and Winnipeg excel at shutting down each others’ strengths. This has resulted in fewer chances from the high-danger areas in front of each net, but the shot attempts overall are off the charts.
Nashville, of course, has the highest-scoring blue line in the game and runs a lot of its offence from its defence. Winnipeg, meanwhile, is lauded for its superior collection of forwards but that’s only allowed the many different skill sets along its blue line to fly under the radar.
If you’re trying to analyze who has the edge heading into Game 7, there isn’t much to choose between either team. Connor Hellebuyck has the advantage in net by the numbers, with a .921 save percentage this series out-duelling Pekka Rinne’s .906, but you could argue with the wins in Games 4 and 6 that Rinne has done more to steal games late in the series.
Just one win and three standings points separated these teams in the regular season. And the tightness of this best-of-seven isn’t surprising when you see how the teams fared against each another in their five regular-season matchups.
And, apart from goals and shot attempts, this series has been razor thin in many other areas between the two rivals.
Thursday’s game will be the first Game 7 in the history of Bridgestone Arena, where Winnipeg has been the better team. Rinne has been much better on the road these playoffs (2.23, .933) than at home (3.60, .881) where he got a mercy pull in Game 5. No team has won two games in a row this series, so this all appears to line up in a way that paints the Jets as the favourite. But they are the younger, less-proven team coming off a 4-0 shellacking in Game 6, in which they looked like the greener group.
That, obviously, can’t happen in Game 7, where a fast start and getting the first goal would be huge steps for the Jets.
Recent history suggests that getting to a Game 7 is a good sign for the rest of the playoffs. The past five Stanley Cup winners have each won at least one Game 7 en route to their championship and none of the other three teams left standing have gone the distance yet in these playoffs.
Thanks to the current playoff format, this is the second year in a row where the top two regular-season teams meet in the second round, following the Washington-Pittsburgh series from 2017. It’s the fourth time ever the top two regular-season teams met this early, although at the time of the other two instances (1969 and 1970) the Stanley Cup Playoffs only consisted of three rounds, so they were semifinal series.
When the top two regular-season teams have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, most of the time in NHL history it’s come in the Stanley Cup Final. And given how close this series has been to this point, and how loaded both Nashville and Winnipeg are, there is a chance this ends up being the best round of the playoffs and that Thursday night’s winner does go on to lift the Cup in June.
(winners in bold)
|YEAR||1ST OVERALL||2ND OVERALL||ROUND|
Through six games, Winnipeg and Nashville have treated hockey fans and completely lived up to the very high expectations this series came with. Game 7 figures to be as close and tightly contested as can be and we’ll be spoiled if they can measure up to this billing again.
All signs point to a great deciding game to cap off what could be one of the closest series in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And if it’s a stinker and a complete letdown? Well, strange things happen this time of year.