NASHVILLE – The most telling feature of the Winnipeg Jets’ Game 1 victory in Nashville is not be that the visitors were somehow able to chase a Vezina finalist from the net despite getting outshot 48-19, it’s that half of the Jets weren’t even aware Pekka Rinne was on the bench for the entire third period.
As they hung on to burgle a win and shift home-ice advantage back to the noisiest barn in hockey, the Jets managed all of two shots on Rinne’s 5-foot-11 replacement, Juuse Saros.
Maybe Winnipeg never spent enough time in the Predators end to get a glimpse at the face behind the mask or notice that the goalie had shrunk six inches.
Or maybe the Jets were just too intently focused on securing another W.
“A good majority of us knew right away when we got on the ice, but then there was a handful talking after the game that didn’t know,” Blake Wheeler revealed Saturday. He smiled sheepishly before choosing his words.
“We’re just gonna go with, we were in the zone.”
The captain is speaking psychologically, of course. In a literal sense, the Predators were the ones in their zone. Last time we saw a possession game that strong, Linda Blair was involved.
It’s been more than two years since any NHL team won a playoff game with a negative-26 shot differential. Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s 47 saves in Friday’s 4-1 win marked the most he’s made in an NHL contest.
And so, on a sober, sunny weekend in Music City, both dressing rooms used the phrase “bounce-back game” to describe the mentality heading into Sunday’s sequel.
Nashville was mostly happy with its performance but couldn’t get the saves and its volume-shooting approach — 16 different men in yellow registered shots — was negated by Hellebuyck, his posts and some excellent work boxing out around the crease.
“There was a lot of shots I felt were from the outside. It kind of looks like they were told to almost shoot everything,” Bryan Little said. “Yeah, we want to get that shot clock down. But if we’re limiting their really good chances, that’s a plus.”
Winnipeg gave the Preds the perimeter, comfortable in the fact their marksmen only need a few quality chances to strike.
“We have good finishers here,” said coach Paul Maurice a few hours after his team shot 21 per cent. “There’s a confidence after the year we’ve had that we can score. That if we get down one or get behind, we don’t have to open up our game right away.”
In all six games this post-season, the Jets have scored first. Play better, as they’ve vowed to do Sunday, and take a 2-0 series lead back to MTS Place, where they’re 35-7-2, well… a series we all picked to go seven might wrap up quick.
“The pressure builds as you apply pressure. You come on the road and you steal a game in their building, the pressure is going to mount,” Wheeler said. “But it doesn’t change anything for us. We approach every game like it’s a must-win for us.”
We’re only one game deep into this thing, and the term “must-win” is already seeing more action than Saros did in his 20 minutes of work. Such is the heat of the post-season spotlight. P.K. Subban used it. Ryan Johansen too.
“There’s no such thing as a stranglehold against this team,” Little cautioned. “Even if we’re up 3-0 against them, it wouldn’t be safe.”
There is a tantalizing opening here for the Jets, a chance to stuff the Presidents’ Trophy winners into a hole so deep, few find a way to crawl out.
Outside of Bridgestone Arena sits an old prop plane all decorated with Winnipeg Jets logos (and, in a brilliant troll move, one Atlanta Thrashers stamp). Fans pay five bucks a swing to smash the sucker with a hammer (proceeds go to the Predators Foundation), the idea being that the aircraft will be a crumpled heap by the end of Round 2.
Maurice says he hasn’t seen the sideshow. He lives playoff road life with blinders on, to the rink, the hotel and back.
The coach is informed that the “jet” is a little dinged up but still very much intact.
“There you go,” Maurice said. “There’s your picture.”