NASHVILLE – Now it’s real.
You walk into this place, a Western Conference building that oozes playoff experience and big-game confidence, and knock the Presidents’ Trophy winners out of the playoffs? You outplay these Nashville Predators in their own building in Game 7?
You don’t do that by mistake, or by fluke.
Hell, you can do this, you could win a Stanley Cup. That’s where the Winnipeg Jets find themselves this morning, a day away from the first conference final ever played in the fine province of Manitoba.
We’re not blocking off Portage Ave. for any parades quite yet. But lots of teams get to the second round and pack ‘er in. Young teams that just run out of breaks, or will, or whatever propels these tougher-than-nails hockey players through the warfare that is the National Hockey League playoffs.
But this Jets team? In a series between the two best regular-season clubs in the NHL, the Jets had the most dangerous forwards, the better goalie, the deeper team, and the brightest star in young centreman Mark Scheifele.
They’re not just good — they’re very, very good. And now, they’re experienced — at least as much as next round’s opponents, a Vegas Golden Knights team for whom all this is brand new as well.
“The telling stat for me in this series,” began head coach Paul Maurice, “is we played four games in here (at Bridgestone Arena) and never lost in regulation. Against the best team in the league.”
Maybe if they played an eighth game, the Predators would win that one. Maybe if this was like one of those old Western League best-of-nines — they used to call them “best of forevers” — the Predators would figure out a way to make their vast advantage in big-game experience count.
But there aren’t any more games, and in the one that truly counted, the Jets weren’t just a little bit better. They were vastly superior.
From their 24-year-old goaltender Connor Hellebuyck — the best goalie in this series by a country mile — through a steady, physical, puck-moving D-corps, into four lines whose collective character gives this team its relentless identity, the Jets walked into Bridgestone and ragdolled the Preds by a 5-1 score.
“If you want to go on a deep run, you’re going to have to win games like this,” said captain Blake Wheeler, as solid as a Budweiser Clydesdale in this Game 7. “We poured everything into tonight and … it was just great to see our group play our game. Win or lose, we wanted to play our game. Keep it pretty simple, have a good first period and play our game all night.”
No question, the leaky performance turned in by Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne was good fortune smiling on Winnipeg. “You got to be good to be lucky,” reminded Scheifele.
Fair. But even without those two gifts from Rinne, which landed him on the bench just 10:31 into the game — “Heartbreaking,” said Hellebuyck, and he meant that — the Jets still only allowed one power-play goal in this game.
While Kyle Turris never did make an appearance in this series for Nashville, Paul Stastny came off the Jets second line for two goals and a helper in Game 7. He had the game-winner in Game 7, just like his father Peter did one night at the old Montreal Forum for the Quebec Nordiques.
Peter’s goal won the 1985 Adams Division pennant for the Nords. Paul’s secures the 2018 Central Division flag for the Jets.
“Not that I know my dad’s goals, but I know that one,” laughed Paul, hands down the best deadline deal made this season. “Rebound off a draw. He still talks about winning that draw.”
Stastny has shepherded two young wingers, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, through a stretch run and two rounds of the playoffs. Two green rookies on his flank, and he’s got 14 points in 12 playoff games. That defines leadership, and describes why one team moves on while the other tees ‘er up.
While Roman Josi was average at best through seven games, guys like Tyler Myers, Josh Morrissey and Ben Chiarot gave Winnipeg more than expected, not less. It’s why you win: More players contributing, less passengers.
That, and having not a single player who looked this mammoth game in the eye and saw anything less than opportunity.
“That’s what you worry about with a young team,” said Maurice. “It’s a physical series, and we’ve got some skaters. Kyle Connor got better as the series went on, stronger. I really liked Niky Ehlers’ game, on the puck. But that’s a difficult thing to do, to get out on the road…
“To play well in here as consistently as we did, it’s impressive.”
Scheifele was the best skater in this series by some distance, setting an NHL record with seven road goals in this series. Ten men have scored six, names like Sidney Crosby and Jack Adams, Dino Ciccarelli and Ray Ferraro, Tim Kerr and Gilbert Perreault. And Newsy Lalonde.
You bust a record held by a guy named Newsy? You’re doing something, man.
“You know, it was fun hockey,” said Scheifele, who would rather block a P.K. Subban slapper in the nude than talk himself up. “They’re an unbelievable team. Top to bottom they’re so solid. And we think we’re pretty good, too. It was a fight to the end as you saw. It was win a game, lose a game, win a game, lose a game… A fun series to be part of. Awesome to be on the good side of it.”
They’re halfway there, these Jets, with an off-day to bask in before Game 1 vs. Vegas on Saturday. No rest for the wicked.
And these Jets, they are indeed wicked.