The Winnipeg Jets will play for a spot in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
They advanced to the Western Conference final the hardest way imaginable on Thursday night, beating the Predators 5-1 in Nashville in Game 7 of their second-round series. Three of Winnipeg’s four victories in the second round came on the Predators’ home ice.
Paul Stastny, a veteran centre Winnipeg acquired at the trade deadline, scored twice. Mark Scheifele also had two, with the other scored by 6-foot-8 defenceman Tyler Myers.
Winnipeg plays the first-year Vegas Golden Knights in the best-of-seven conference finals. The first game will be Saturday night before the Jets’ rabid fans at Bell MTS Place.
They had never survived past a second round since entering the NHL in 1979 with three other teams from the World Hockey Association, and now find themselves four wins shy of advancing to the Stanley Cup final. The Western Conference winner will play either Tampa Bay or Washington, the clubs contesting the Eastern Conference title.
“Right now we are just thrilled to move on and pretty pleased to knock off a team like Nashville,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “We are happy to allow our fan base to have a celebration. It is amazing, a great feeling.”
Nashville had the best record in the NHL with 117 points during the regular season, with the Jets second with 114. Including the playoffs, they played one another 12 times. Each won six, but the Jets won a larger chunk of theirs at the most critical time.
The Predators carried play early but found themselves trailing when Pekka Rinne allowed two bad goals. Myers scored the first, squeezing a shot past the goalie’s left blocker from a bad angle 8 minutes 41 seconds into the game. Less than two minutes later, Stastny flipped a backhand into the net from in close beneath Rinne’s right arm. Stastny had tried the same shot seconds earlier and succeeded after collecting the rebound.
Nashville then replaced Rinne with backup Juuse Saros. Rinne, who had 34 saves in Game 6 on Monday, had already given up two goals on seven shots when he exited with 9:17 left in the first.
The Predators climbed back into it with a man advantage when P.K. Subban whistled a one-timer past Connor Hellebuyck with 4:06 left in the period. It was Subban’s fourth power-play goal in the series.
Saros made three terrific saves in a three-minute span in the second period and had stopped nine in a row when Scheifele fired a dart past him for a 3-1 lead with 2:10 left in the second. It was the 10th goal and 15th point for the Jets’ centre in a dozen postseason games. After Stastny scored again in the third period, Schiefele scored an empty-netter.
Hellebuyck was perfect after allowing the lone goal. He finished with 36 saves.
Jets coach Paul Maurice lauded his players for sticking to the playbook: “We have really good leadership in our room,” he said. “We came out and did the two things we wanted to do: start fast and play with confidence and courage.”
Nashville lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup final in 2017 and was among the favourites this year. The Predators won twice at Bell MTS Place, the league’s toughest rink for visitors, including 4-0 on Monday night in Game 6. In the end, they could not hold off the gritty Jets.
Neither team was able to win two in a row in the hard-fought series.
“It is always good to be in your building in front of your fans, but this series is a little bit different,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said after Thursday’s pregame skate. “Both teams have proven they can win in both places.”
The Jets are the third team in as many seasons to win three times on the road in one playoff series. St. Louis accomplished it in 2016, and the Penguins did it on the way to winning the Stanley Cup last year.
The Jets got their start in 1972 as one of the original franchises in the World Hockey Association. They were admitted into the NHL in 1979 with three other WHA franchises, but moved to Phoenix in 1996 due to financial difficulties. That makes the current team their third incarnation.
The Jets failed to reach the playoffs in each of the past two years, and were listed in Las Vegas as a 40-1 long-shot to win the Stanley Cup this season.
They ended up setting franchise records for wins (52) and points (114) during the regular season, and rolled over Minnesota in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
That set up the series with Nashville, the only team in the NHL with a better record. The Predators kept from falling into a 3-1 hole in Winnipeg in Game 4, and evened the series by winning at Bell MTS Place again on Monday. It was the only time the Jets were shut out at home all season.
The Jets remained confident heading into Thursday because they had won Games 1 and 5 at Bridgestone Arena.
The city famous for country music has become enamoured with its hockey team, and its followers are loud.
They were partying by midafternoon in the entertainment corridor beside the rink. A band at one bar collected donations in a jug with a note taped to the side: “Tip the band to make sure Justin Bieber doesn’t play here.”
Outside another honkytonk, a woman dressed in a chicken costume with a Predators scarf around her neck danced on the sidewalk. A sign inside read, “While we were making whiskey, the Preds were making history.”