PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Jets vs. Predators

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Let’s not kid ourselves here, if you’re a fan of the game of hockey, the second round matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators is the crème de la crème.

This isn’t throwing any disrespect or shade on the three other series going on around the league. It’s just the truth.

This matchup was on the tongues of fans in both markets and across the league before the playoffs even began. People wanted it, and they knew if both teams took care of business in the first round, they’d get it.

Now it’s here. And it’s massive in every measurable way.

Simply put, you have the two best teams in the regular season facing off against one another.

Nashville finished with 117 points and the Presidents’ Trophy while the Jets slotted in three points back with 114. The hype begins there and runs rampant as each storyline branches out.

Both teams possess Vezina Trophy candidates this season.

Both teams have great offenses, stout defenses and excel in special teams.

And the hits just keep coming: Patrik Laine vs. Filip Forsberg. Mark Scheifele vs. P.K. Subban. Dustin Byfuglien vs. anyone brave enough.

Can Austin Watson and Colton Sissons keep it up? Will Nikolaj Ehlers find his scoring touch? What about Kyle Connor? Will injuries derail the Jets or will discipline issues spell doom for the Predators?

The list is endless and enthralling.

Schedule

Surging Players

Jets: On offense, Scheifele finished up the first round series with four goals and five points while Laine had two goals and two assists. Byfuglien had five assists as he chipped in from the point, but his biggest contribution outside of production was the hurt he put on the Minnesota Wild, physically.

But unquestionably, the Jet that is surging the most at the moment is Hellebuyck, who bounced back from a tough Game 3 outing to post back-to-back shutouts in Games 4 and 5 to close out Winnipeg’s first-round series against the Wild.

Predators: The first round was the Austin Watson coming out party. Watson had four goals and three assists to match linemate Colton Sissons’ three goals and four assists for the team lead at seven points. Add Nick Bonino‘s five points and the Predators third line made up three of the team’s top six scorers during their six-game series against Colorado.

Forsberg wasn’t far behind, scoring four and adding two helpers. Meanwhile, Mattias Ekholm had one goal and five assists.

Struggling players

Jets: Winnipeg works so well as a unit that even when there is a lull offensively from a player, they’re aren’t always immediately viewed as being stuck in rut.

That said, Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored 29 goals in the regular season and rookie Kyle Connor, who had 31 in his inaugural NHL campaign, have just two assists apiece thus far. This isn’t to say the sky is falling on those two, and you could probably chalk up their first-round offensive struggles to trying to sort playing in the playoffs in the big leagues.

Still, both will be looking for improvement in the goal-scoring department in the second round.

Predators: Ryan Hartman cost the Preds a first-round pick at the trade deadline on Feb. 26 and he was a healthy scratch for Game 6. Hartman already missed Game 5 due to suspension after throwing his own pity party and then trying to take Carl Soderberg‘s head clean off.

Hartman needs to be better, and so does the line of Kyle Turris, Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala.

Turris had no goals in the series, adding just two assists. Turris had 10 points in 19 games last year with the Ottawa Senators as they went on their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Fiala had a goal and an assist in the series and Smith had two markers. Turris’ line was solid during the regular season. That magic would be a welcomed addition to the second round.

Oh, and Mike Fisher could pitch in a goal or even a helper. He’s laid an egg through six games.

Goaltending

Jets: The backbone of the Jets, both in the regular season and through the first round.

Hellebuyck has been nothing short of sensational for the Jets this season. He posted a healthy 4-1 record with a .924 save percentage and two shutouts in the first round. Hellebuyck is able to string together solid start after solid start, and when he has an off night, like he did in Game 3, his ability to quickly forget it and move on is uncanny.

He’s a Vezina candidate for a reason and a problem the Predators must solve to move on.

Predators: Speaking of Vezina candidates, Rinne is likely the front-runner for the award this year, and his regular season was tremendous.

In the first round, however, Rinne looked fairly pedestrian, if not below average, with a .909 save percentage. Still, he backstopped the Predators to a 5-0 win in Game 5 with a 22-save shutout. And Nashville has all the ingredients in front of Rinne to make up for poor nights.

One area of concern for Rinne is his sub-.800 save percentage when facing high-danger scoring chances. It’s something to keep an eye on against a team that generates a lot of them.

This battle is paramount in the series. The Jets, even with their scoring prowess, have it all to do against Rinne if he’s on top of his game.

Special teams

Jets: Winnipeg’s penalty kill struggled in the first round, killing off infractions just 76.9 percent of the time. The Jets had the eighth best PK in the league during the regular season, so chalk this one up as an anomaly, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

The Jets were given just 13 power plays in the first round and converted on three of them for a healthy 23.1 percent success rate. Laine didn’t find the back of the net with the man-advantage as the Wild tried to take him out of the equation altogether. It didn’t help that they left Scheifele open twice, however. Winnipeg has a lot of weapons at their disposal on the PP. Nashville would do well to limit the number of times Winnipeg gets to deploy them.

Predators: The Preds were shorthanded 20 times during the first round but managed to kill off 90 percent of those. In theory, rinse and repeat should be on the menu, but the Jets are far more dangerous up a man than Colorado. Still, having Rinne in the crease and Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis to depend on in front of him is the envy of many.

Nashville’s power play was a bit of a bottom feeder during the first round, converting on just 15.8 percent of their 19 chances (three, for those who aren’t good at math, like me). That compares to their 21.2 percent during the regular season. If Winnipeg’s PK continues to struggle, Nashville could get back to that number.

Fancy stats

Jets: There’s not a better possession team in the playoffs thus far. The Jets are moving along with a 58.96 percent Corsi rating through five games, and showed their ability to dominate and hold teams in their defensive zone in some lopsided affairs against the Wild. Winnipeg’s expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) was highest at 61.9%.

Predators: The Jets might lead playoff teams in terms of possession, but right behind them is the Predators at 54.89%. The Predators had the edge between the two teams in medium-danger save percentage at .986 compared to Winnipeg’s .939. Nashvilles xGF% was third at 55.9%.

We’re splitting hairs here. Both teams are good in many analytical categories. According to TSN’s Travis Yost, “Winnipeg actually outchanced Nashville (53.5 per cent of scoring chances in their favor) over the five-game series, but Nashville did end up winning three of five games.”

Injuries

Jets: Laine missed Wednesday’s practice and Ehlers missed Game 5, both with “malaise” as Jets coach Paul Maurice preferred to put it. Maurice said he expects both to be ready for Game 1.

The Jets are without Mathieu Perreault, who has been out of action since picking up an injury in Game 1. Dmitry Kulikov (back) still remains sidelined. Backup netminder Steve Mason is nursing another lower-body injury but has been skating. Toby Enstrom, meanwhile, is finally back to practice after missing time with an ankle injury. His return could be a big boost for the Jets. Enstrom’s a solid puck-moving defender who is great at breakouts and works well beside Byfuglien.

Predators: The Preds emerged from the first round relatively unscathed. Watson missed team skates on Wednesday and Thursday but is expected to play. Otherwise, it appears all cylinders are firing for the Predators at the moment.

X-Factor for Jets

Some might say health, but the Jets have proved they can not only handle the injury bug, but spite it all together with impressive results. The Jets seem to click no matter who’s in the lineup. That said, they face a Predators team that can punish lesser players. But the x-factor here is goaltending. If Hellebuyck is on his game, the Jets are near-unstoppable.

X-Factor for Predators

Discipline. The Predators simply need to control their sticks and their extremities and take fewer minors. Nashville took 29 minor penalties (second most) in the first round and was shorthanded 20 times. They’re playing against the power play that clipped along at 23.1 percent in the first round and have Laine and Scheifele who can be devastating if given the opportunity with the man advantage. Nashville’s penalty kill was an even 90 percent against the Avalanche, but they can’t rest on that against Laine and Co.

Prediction

Predators in 7: I’m sticking to my pre-playoff pick, but it’s getting increasingly hard. The Jets were simply too good in the first round not to take notice and the Predators were largely pedestrian against the Avalanche to make this one a coin flip on paper.  The Predators gained a ton of experience last year, and they will have to lean on that in this series. The edge is razor thin, but the Predators are slightly ahead of the curve. I expect Nashville to tighten up defensively and not give Winnipeg’s stars the kind of space Nathan MacKinnon was afforded in the first round.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks
• 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.