Jets vs. Predators an early clash of titans NHL playoffs rarely see

Predators defenceman P.K. Subban says he doesn’t really understand the “villain role,” he just has fun, plays hockey as hard as he can, and checks the scoreboard after to see if he’s done his job or not.

NASHVILLE — So, you don’t like the playoff format that gives us Winnipeg versus Nashville in Round 2, as compelling a matchup as we’ve looked forward to in years? Let’s talk, shall we?

In 49 years of playoff hockey — since expansion in 1967 minus one lockout year — the top two regular season teams have met in the playoffs prior to Round 3 only once. That was last season, when No. 1 Washington lost to Pittsburgh in Round 2.

In this, the 50th playoff season, it happens again when the 117-point Predators host the 114-point Jets, a series that some folks complain will unfairly eliminate one of the top two regular season clubs. Others, like me, will remind that in the 36 seasons of a "one vs. 16" or "one vs. eight" format, the top two clubs met just eight times — in a Conference or Stanley Cup Final.

So, there are no guarantees, right?

While the current format may allow a "one vs. two" matchup in the second round twice in the 15 seasons it has been used since ’67, the other format dictates we get a series with the pedigree of Jets-Preds just nine times in 35 years. Rounded off, that’s once in eight years versus one in four years, if you’re scoring at home.

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Personally, we’ll take a matchup like this one any time we can get it, and then enjoy the residuals when Nashville and Winnipeg play five times next season when the Central Division games will have that much extra juice.

The one-two matchup isn’t only thing that makes this Western Conference Semifinal — or more accurately, Central Division Final — special, however. It is also a historic time in Winnipeg, a hard-luck hockey town that finally gets its day in the Prairie sun.

For the first time in the history of either Winnipeg franchise — the Jets-Coyotes or Thrashers-Jets — Winnipeg represents Canada’s last remaining hope of bringing Stanley home to where he originated. Back to the land where Big Silver has not summered since 1993.

So, you can moan about a series that may or may not have happened had Nashville met San Jose and Winnipeg played Vegas, or you can book off every second night starting Friday to watch a pair of teams that combined for 41 non-shootout goals in five meetings this season.

"They come at you in swarms, they have good goaltending, a lot of good D-men, a tough building to play in but a fun building to play in," Jets centre Paul Stastny said of Nashville this week.

Winnipeg’s is the smallest rink in the NHL, and as such, likely the loudest. Nashville’s isn’t far behind, with fans whose rehearsed chants remind of NCAA football. This series should be sponsored by a company that manufactures job site ear protection, a rare corporate sell being missed by the NHL.

"It gets loud, it’s almost like (Bell MTS Place)," Stastny said of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, which is about a four-iron from Legend’s Corner, Tootsie’s and the beginning of the best, booziest country music strip on the circuit. "It’s not as big an arena, so it’s almost like (the fans) are sitting on top of you. You feed off the crowd and you’ve got to do everything you can to silence the crowd."

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Nashville likely has the best defence corps in the NHL. The Jets are better than most teams in that category, but not Nashville.

So it becomes a game between teams that are accustomed to playing in the offensive zone and having the puck a lot. Something has to give, and in the regular season it was often one of the two Vezina candidates in this series, Connor Hellebuyck or Pekka Rinne.

"They’re high-event games," Jets coach Paul Maurice told reporters in Winnipeg. "Something’s happening all the time. They’re very physical. They’re certainly really fast. Great saves. Neither team is passive in how they play. Neither team sits back and tries to slow the game down in terms of what they do with the puck. There’s lots of action in these games.

"The change of possession in these games and the opportunities off those changes in possession are as fast as you’ll see. You think you’re in a good spot, you bobble the puck, and you’re in a real bad spot."

Nashville won the season series 3-2, by scores of: Preds 5, Jets 3; Jets 6, Preds 4; Preds 6, Jets 5; Preds 3, Jets 1; and Jets 5, Preds 4, in a shootout.

The biggest advantage? Nashville has all the experience a run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring can furnish them with, while the Jets are playoff newbies.

When we get to Game 7 that might make a difference. Then again, by that point Winnipeg will be a lot more experienced, won’t they?

Our pick: Jets in seven.

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