The most anticipated series of the playoffs will come to fruition starting on Friday night when the Winnipeg Jets take on the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Now, people will bitch because the two best teams in the West are meeting in Round 2, but under the previous format there is no guarantee we get this matchup. So, with that in mind, shut up and watch some world class hockey. Also, get me booze. Lots of booze.
Atlanta Thrashers Winnipeg Jets – 52-20-10 (114 points), eliminated Minnesota in Round 1
GF/G: 3.38 (2nd)
GA/G: 2.66 (5th)
PP: 23.4%; 23.1% in first round
PK: 81.8%; 76.9% in first round
Players To Watch
Patrik Laine – One of the most gifted pure goal scorers since Alexander Ovechkin entered the league. Scored 44 goals in 2017-18. He has a nose for the net and a beard that only a mom and/or goat could love. Watch out for him on the power play too.
Blake Wheeler – One of the best power forwards in the league. 91 points in the regular season. He has a great combo of size and speed. Traded from Boston to Atlanta in the 2010-11 season, so there’s an indication of how lucky he is.
Mark Scheifele – A formidable first line center who Wheeler will flank on the first line. Currently leads the Jets in playoff points with five (four goals). Winnipeg’s first draft pick after relocating from Atlanta, so I’m not sure if I should pity him or not.
Dustin Byfuglien – Winnipeg’s best defenseman. He is a thumper back there, so the Preds will need to keep their heads up around him. Fitting that “fugly” is in his name because he has a face for radio and a body for beer league hockey.
Kyle Connor – Maybe the most under-the-radar Rookie of the Year candidate in the regular season. 31-goal scorer. We’ll see if the young kid can keep that up in the postseason. So far, he has just two assists in the playoffs.
Connor Hellebuyck – This will be the last time I correctly spell his name. Came out of nowhere to become a Vezina finalist this season. Wasn’t overly tested in Round 1. Picks up several Sirius channels via his ears.
Connor – Scheifele – Wheeler
Laine – Stastny – Ehlers
Copp – Lowry – Little
Armia – Hendricks – Roslovic
Morrow – Byfuglien
Myers – Trouba
Enstrom – Chiarot
Nashville Predators – 53-18-11 (117 points), eliminated Colorado in Round 1
GF/G: 3.18 (8th)
GA/G: 2.49 (2nd)
PP: 21.2%; 15.8% in first round
PK: 81.9%; 90.0% in first round
Players To Watch
Kyle Turris – In the entire first round, Turris had just one point — an assist in Game 2. He was excellent after the Preds acquired him in November and kickstarted the second line after that. He’ll need to find that level against the Jets. Perhaps his chain is weighing him down.
Kevin Fiala – You may be noticing a pattern developing here. Fiala only had two points against the Avs and never seemed to find his groove. The wide open nature of this series against the Jets may be to his advantage. Fiala excels in games where speed and skill rule the day.
Craig Smith – Why not round out the trio? Smitty had two goals in the opening round, but like the other two, he has another level to his game. If the Predators hope to get back to the conference final, Smith will have to be more productive. No matter what happens, he’s still pretty easy on the eyes.
Nick Bonino – Raise your hand if you saw Bonino shutting down MacKinnon and contributing on offense against Colorado. Put your hand down, liar. The question now is, can he do it again? His line will almost certainly get one of the top two Winnipeg lines. If they can do this two series in a row, Nashville will be in great shape.
Roman Josi – Captain Handsome is due for an offensive outburst. He was all over the place in the offensive end against Colorado, and there’s no better team for Josi to see than Winnipeg. Against the Jets this year, Josi racked up 9 points in five games.
Pekka Rinne – Everyone’s favorite Finn makes this list again. Rinne got off to a rough start in Round 1 but closed strong. In games 4-6 against the Avalanche, Rinne posted a 1.34 GAA and .951 save%. Rinne will need to make a few more jaw-dropping saves against the Jets though. His high-danger save% last round was only 70.00. That’s the lowest amongst remaining starting goalies.
Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson
Fiala – Turris – Smith
Watson – Bonino – Sissons
Hartman – Fisher – Jarnkrok
Ekholm – Subban
Ellis – Josi
Weber – Emelin
Neither one of these teams have any issues putting the puck in the back of the net. That was the case in the regular season and it has been the case in the postseason. I’ll be very honest right now: I get cold sweats looking at the forward depth of the Jets. They have three bona fide superstars in Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele. That’s far from where it ends though. Kyle Connor was a legitimate candidate for Rookie of the Year with 31 goals. Bryan Little is a very consistent offensive threat, Nikolaj Ehlers has speed to burn, and Paul Stastny has been an excellent trade deadline pickup to go alongside Laine. Matieu Perreault is injured, but it’s unclear if he could return during the series. That would be a huge boost for the Jets if so. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Andrew Copp was the piece of garbage that injured our beloved Calle Jarnkrok.
The thing that makes the Jets so dangerous on offense is that they can beat you in a number of ways. They have plenty of speed and skill, but their top flight guys are also built like houses. Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler are all 6-foot-3 or taller. Wheeler is, in my humble opinion, the best power forward in the league today. They used that combination of size, speed, and skill to maul the Wild in the first round. Look at the shot attempts and shot locations from each game. It’s not pretty. It was all Winnipeg all the time. The Wild were without two of their best players, but it was still an impressive showing. It will take all five skaters on the ice for Nashville to slow them down.
What they Predators lack in size, they make up for in depth. I’d say Winnipeg’s top two lines are better than Nashville’s. I’d say the Preds have the advantage on the third and fourth lines. If he so desired, Laviolette could roll four lines and the Preds would probably be okay. The same can’t be said for the Jets — especially without Perreault. The Bonino line was arguably the best of the series against Colorado. The JOFA line is the JOFA line. Put them up against anyone and they’ll produce. I’m not worried about them at all. The one line that does concern me is the second line. If they fail to produce as they did in Round 1, the boys in gold will be hacking their way out of sand traps by the time the conference final starts. It is imperative that Laviolette finds a way to get that line kickstarted.
It’s relatively close, but the Jets do have an advantage at the forward position.
Whatever gap there is between these teams at the forward position, Nashville makes up for on the blue line. That’s not to say the Jets’ defense is bad either. It’s not. Nashville’s defense is just that good, but you already knew that.
If you’d like a drinking game for this series, drink anytime someone refers to the Jets’ defensemen (specifically Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers) as “heavy” or “a load” or “big bodied.” You’ll be singing “Friends In Low Places” on a tabletop by the time the second period starts. The truth is, those two are both behemoths (drink), but they can skate too. The physics behind Byfuglien don’t make any sense. That guy should be in a beer league somewhere based on his looks but he is a helluva defenseman. The Preds will have to keep their heads up around him. Myers is similar, but he is a little more mobile. Those two will present challenges. The rest of that group — Jacob Trouba, Tobias Enstrom, and Joe Morrow — aren’t pushovers either. They suppress shots and scoring chances at a pretty high rate, despite what the games against Nashville indicate, so the Preds will have to find a way to consistently get to the slot.
PSA: Josh Morrissey is a POS that does crap like this. Hate him with the fire of 1,000 suns.
Video: Morrissey cross-check on Staal. pic.twitter.com/Gu4VK3oh7V
— Everything Hockey (@EHClothing) April 18, 2018
The Preds’ defense did not get off to the greatest start against Colorado. They were sloppy and turnover prone. By the time the series ended, they had found their form. By Game 6, they were shutting down Colorado zone entries, making quick and efficient breakout passes, and creating offensive chances. In that final game, they allowed just three high-danger chances. More of that. Less of Game 3. Expect to see the minutes of the top four jump a little in the second round. Against an offense as lethal as Winnipeg’s, the third pairing is a liability and will only serve to give me an ulcer. We know what Ellis, Ekholm, Josi, and Subban can do when they’re on their game. They can go toe-to-toe with any line(s) in the NHL. It’s going to be an exciting chess match.
Here we have a battle of two Vezina Trophy finalists. But they are different in that Rinne has been around the block a time or two (35-years old) and Hellebuyck (24-years old) just had his breakout season. One is handsome and one is ugly. I’ll let you use your eyes to determine which one is which there.
Hellebuck started the year with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL (be more on brand, Canada), but was called up to the NHL and never let the starting job go. His 2.36 GAA, .924 save%, and 80.18 high-danger save% were all among the best in the league. Now, he has to prove he can do that for an entire playoff run. He wasn’t tested a whole lot against Minnesota. The majority of the game was spent at the other end of the ice, so he didn’t see much of a barrage. When he did, in Game 3, he looked human. The Predators will need to get quality shots on him and try to take his eyes away as often as possible. If he sees it from the outside, he will stop it.
Rinne’s first three games of the Colorado series were rocky (lol puns), but he got more comfortable after getting pulled in Game 3. It’s also no coincidence that the defense showed up after that either. The difference this series is that, no matter how well Nashville’s defense plays, the Jets will get some good scoring chances. Rinne will have to be ready to answer the bell in those situations. There may be a 5-4 high-scoring shootout where he’ll have to make a spectacular save at the end of the game. I’m not looking for three shutouts this series. I’m just looking for Rinne to make the big save when the Preds need it most.
Both goalies have been tremendous this season, but I’d give the very slight nod to Rinne here.
This will be the game within the game in this epic series. I can promise you, if Nashville decides to fall in love with the penalty box this will be a very short series. I know the Preds’ penalty kill was damn near perfect against a great Avs power play, but Winnipeg’s man advantage is even better. Give them enough opportunities, and they will burn you. Having said that, if the Preds can limit the penalties, their penalty kill unit is plenty good enough to kill off a power play here and there.
The other side of this is where things get very interesting. It’s a very movable object against an easily stoppable force. In the first round, the Predators scored on just 15.8% of their power plays. Meanwhile, the Jets only killed 76.9% of the power plays they faced. Whichever one of those two units figures it out first could go a long way in deciding a series as close as this one.
I predict this will be a long series featuring some of the best hockey this league — or this world — has to offer. I predict I will eat more Pepto tablets than actual food over the next two weeks. I predict Jack Daniels will give me a punch card by the time this series is over. I predict I will both love and hate every second of this series. I predict that casual fans will get hooked on hockey because of this series.
I predict the Predators will defeat the Jets in 7 games.
Suck it, Canada.