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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck