As it turns out, game seven isstill thrilling, home-ice advantage didn’t matter much at all in this series, and the President’s Trophy “curse” is alive and well.
The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators played their penultimate game seven Thursday with Winnipeg prevailing 5-1 and stunning Nashville fans.
How Did We Get Here?
Nashville played the role of the immovable object in this clash, with one of the deepest defensive units in the playoffs, one of the loudest arenas in the league, a home-ice advantage by way of winning the President’s Trophy. Nashville encountered a small amount of adversity in the first round, dispatching a Colorado Avalanche team in six games, an Avs team that simply would not lay down.
Winnipeg played the role of the unstoppable force, with raw talent up and down the roster capable of striking seemingly at will. Winnipeg brushed aside Minnesota in five games seemingly effortlessly.
Fans and pundits across social media agreed this series deserved seven games. Seven games is what we got.
The first six games alternated winners, with Winnipeg winning games one, three and five. Nashville took games two, four and six. Each team recorded a 1-2 record at home. Winnipeg won three of its four wins on the road in Bridgestone Arena, while Nashville had two of its three wins on the road at the Bell-MTS Centre.
Game sevens always feel like they have a certain palpability to them, and this one was no exception. There were plenty of storylines, Nashville hosting its first ever game seven at home, Winnipeg’s ability to win on the road, the question of how would Dustin Byfuglien contend with Scott Hartnell, pick one.
The Predators forced a game seven after staving off elimination in game six, winning a dominant game 4-0 in Winnipeg in a game where longtime Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne looked like his Vezina-nominated form.
Surely, one of the hardest arenas to play in throughout the entire league would see things through, in a coronation of a great season, and an anointing of Nashville as a hockey city, right?
Winnipeg felt otherwise.
A Catastrophic Start
Winnipeg came out flying, establishing their hallmark speed right from puck drop. Action was back and forth, end to end, these teams had a purpose.
Then, eight minutes and forty-one seconds into the first, something that could only be described as strange and anticlimactic happened. Tyler Myers scored for Winnipeg on a shot from the goal line, one that tricked just past Pekka Rinne, one that Pekka Rinne would’ve saved any other time.
Bridgestone Arena was a little quieter now, but still buzzing. Then, disaster struck.
Rinne let in a second goal on a Paul Stastny backhand, one where Rinne came off the post thinking Stastny was going to pass. Rinne guessed wrong, and soon enough it’s 2-0 Winnipeg with merely ten minutes gone.
Taking a risk
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette resorted to the unthinkable.
Laviolette pulled Rinne for the fourth time in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs in favor of backup Juuse Saros.
The scene reminded me of the Miracle On Ice when the Soviets pulled the consensus best goaltender in the world Vladislav Tretiak for Vladimir Myshkin after two soft goals.
The bench boss’ logic here being that Saros getting the nod would galvanize the team around him, and it did for awhile. The move seemed to energize Nashville, with P.K. Subban scoring on a power play to bring Nashville within one at the end of the first period.
The lead however, would not be relinquished. Winnipeg added a goal courtesy of a Mark Scheifele snap shot to make it 3-1 with 2:10 left in the second. Blake Wheeler fed Scheifele, a breakout star in these playoffs, in the slot and Scheifele buried it. Paul Stastny would add an insurance goal on a power play after Ryan Johansen slashed Patrik Laine’s stick out of his hands.
Winnipeg would add an empty-net goal to make it 5-1, sealing their place in the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Turning Point, Game Seven and Series
Game Seven: The turning point came when Rinne was pulled, without a doubt. Saros did an admirable job in relief, but it wasn’t ultimately enough. Besides, even if Winnipeg blew it, Rinne’s confidence would have been shattered going forward.
Series: For me, it’s hard to name a turning point in such an even, seven-game series. But if I had to say one, I’d say the turning point in the series came when Winnipeg came storming back from being down 3-0 in game three. Winnipeg showed fans that it could take Nashville’s best shot on the chin and still get back up and fight. Nashville falling apart late in that game also contributed to a massive feeling of confidence in the Jets’ players that they could handle whatever Nashville threw at them.
For each team, there was one player who always seemed to show up when the chips were down
Nashville: P.K. Subban or Filip Forsberg. Subban rallied the troops after game five and put in a monumental effort all series, scoring timely goals in every Nashville win, and even in a couple of losses.
Forsberg would get this nod, but he was quiet in game seven, and a couple of other key points in the series.
Winnipeg: Pick one, I’m not joking. Winnipeg got elite level play from four, arguably five different guys. Hellebuyck looked superb in the series, apart from the two shooting gallery games.
Stastny arguably won the series with his timely offense, the same could be said for Byfuglien and Scheifele. For this alone, I’m giving it to Paul Stastny, who could be seen as a difference maker in the series.
The Jets advance to the Western Conference Final to face the expansion darlings in the Vegas Golden Knights. People don’t give Vegas much of a chance in this series, but Winnipeg’s fatigue from this series might play a role in game one.
On the flip side, sometimes a quick turnaround isn’t bad. Winnipeg will be fresh off an emotional game seven where they played a perfect game, while Vegas could have a little bit of rust on them from their extended rest.
This is going to rub salt in the wound for many Predators fans, but what’s next for Nashville is a summer of wondering what might have been and asking a lot of questions.
Much of the blame has been shouldered by Pekka Rinne for his layoff performance.
Nashville pulled Rinne four times this playoffs in favor of younger Finn Juuse Saros, seen as the heir apparent to Rinne and prompting questions of Pekka Rinne’s play in the playoffs.
Rinne is 35 and his contract carries a $7 million cap hit next season, then he’s an unrestricted free agent. Trading Rinne and giving Juuse Saros the nod going forward could be possible, but unless Nashville retains salary, that cap hit alone is something that turns away prospective trade partners.
Peter Laviolette and the hot seat
Another big question is Peter Laviolette. I realize this sounds insane, but hockey is a sport where the coach is the first thing to go if a team doesn’t win. Laviolette has bowed out of the playoffs with a deep, talented roster going back to 2015.
There was the infamous series of blown leads to eventual Cup winner Chicago in 2015.
Then, Laviolette broke through and went to the Western Conference Final with Nashville in 2015-16, but ultimately fell in the Final that year to the San Jose Sharks.
Nashville regained its form last year, upsetting Chicago and exorcising those demons as the eighth seed, winning the Western Conference and getting all the way to the Cup Final before falling to Pittsburgh.
But this year was supposed to be different, Nashville had arguably the deepest, most talented roster in franchise history. The offense gained the likes of Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino along with the anointing of Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg as superstars. The Preds looked like an absolute lock for the Stanley Cup.
But again, Laviolette can’t get it done. A coach with a reputation of not being able to deliver in the playoffs only adds to his own negative reputation. Laviolette’s only Cup came in a lockout-shortened year with Carolina in 2006. After, he faltered against Chicago with Philadelphia in 2010, Nashville in 2017 and now this year.
Is Laviolette’s seat hot? Maybe, but in his short time, he’s taken Nashville further into the playoffs than former coach Barry Trotz did in his entire tenure.
But these are questions to be addressed after the playoffs.
For now, the hockey doesn’t stop. The Eastern Conference Final between Washington and Tampa Bay drops the puck tonight, with Vegas and Winnipeg starting their series Saturday.