The playoffs are, by nature, a war of attrition. Injuries are an inevitability when teams are so physical and games are close together. There’s rarely any time for significant rest between games as that luxury is reserved for teams that sweep. Lucky for both the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, neither one swept. Rest days are few and far between for the two Central Division powerhouses, although one team definitely needs it more than the other.
The Jets are currently missing Dmitry Kulikov for an extended amount of time as he had back surgery in early March. Otherwise, a few players are day-to-day according to TSN. Nikolaj Ehlers and Tobias Enstrom are the biggest names as they are day to day and skating with the team in non-contact sweaters. Otherwise, Joel Armia and Mathieu Perreault are two important depth pieces that aren’t at full health. Ehlers is obviously the big name, but missing depth pieces can sink the majority of hopeful playoff contenders. This will be an area that the Predators will look to exploit.
The Predators somehow escaped an incredibly vicious first round with no known injuries, although I suspect some players might be playing with a hitch in their giddy-up. As far as official records show, only Yannick Weber is listed as injured. He’s day to day with an upper-body injury, but he’s relatively unimportant. He’s a third pairing defender at best, and while he might be better than Matt Irwin or Alexei Emelin, he won’t be that much better. I suspect Weber will be back in the nightly line-up sometime this series.
Big Guns on the Jets
How can you talk about the Jets without mentioning their incredible offense? Patrik Laine is probably a generational goal-scorer, but he’s been relegated to the second line with Ehlers and Paul Statsny. Meanwhile, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler take the brunt of the tough matchups as the “first” line. The rest of the lineup features a fun mix of skill and good utility players like Bryan Little, Andrew Copp, and Joel Armia.
Scheifele is leading the charge in terms of points with five in five games, including four goals. He’s a dynamic player who has made a name for himself as a playmaker, but is obviously more than capable of scoring big goals. He may not be the fastest or most talented player, but Scheifele is probably the smartest player on the ice at any given moment. Wheeler flanks the centerman with grace, as he’s probably the breakout player of the season. Everyone knew Wheeler was good, but now he has the stats to back it up. He has four points in five games so far, but could get even better.
The second line is nothing to mess with, either, as Laine has four points in five games as well. He can kill a team from anywhere and in any situation. The Predators are the most undisciplined team in the league and giving the Jets more than a few power play opportunities per night could sink their playoff run. Setting Laine up will be Ehlers and Statsny, who are both good playmakers in their own right. Statsny is more of a pure passer, who excels in finding players in the slot. He has four points in five games so far, although could get better if he decides to shoot more. Ehlers is a different beast in some regards. He uses his superb stickhandling and shifty skating to open up passing lanes by threatening the net. It’s not publically known how bad his injury is, but it could play a huge factor into his role in the second round.
Pack Attack from the Predators
Depth is the name of the game for the Predators. They have arguably the most talented depth in the NHL, even if they don’t always utilize it. The Predators don’t necessarily have a first, second, third, or fourth line. Instead, the Predators have what are considered to be two first lines as well as two third lines. The top line, also known as JoFA, consists of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. They showed up in a big way during the first round and left the Avalanche defense twisted and tangled. Following them is Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris, and Craig Smith, although they were hot garbage in the first round despite great zone and talent sheltering.
While the second line was plain bad, the new third line was, to put it mildly, immaculate during the first round. Colton Sissons, Nick Bonino, and Austin Watson were possession monsters who attacked the offensive zone often and with great results. Watson and Sissons actually lead the Predators with seven points in six games, while Bonino follows along with five. Make no mistake, this line saw no sheltering whatsoever and came out on top. They’ll most likely see the Jets’ third line of Jack Roslovic, Copp, and Little. While I give the Jets the edge in terms of pure talent, the Predators’ third line may be able to use their physicality to their advantage.
The fourth line has, unfortunately, not followed in the footsteps of the third line. Instead, Mike Fisher has proven he’s too slow for the NHL while Scott Hartnell and Calle Jarnkrok are left to keep things together. Ryan Hartman is currently sitting in the press box after a suspension but could be back for the first game of the series. A line of Hartnell, Jarnkrok, and Hartman could easily handle tough minutes while also contributing offensive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the fourth line take on the Jets’ second or third line in order to give the Predators’ second or third line an easier matchup.
I’d love to spend more time on the second line, but they were really bad and I can sum them up in one sentence. If they continue to play like they did against Colorado, the Predators won’t make the Stanley Cup Final. Plain and simple, scorers need to score, or at least contribute in some positive way. Instead of being so negative, let’s go to another positive.
The first line was absolutely dominant for the Predators. Johansen has been quietly good all year but now he’s finally contributing on the scoreboard. He has five points in six games, and shows no signs of slowing down. His defensive play was a bit lacking in the first round, but his dominance of the puck in the offensive zone was a sight to behold. While Forsberg and Arvidsson excel in producing off the rush, Johansen is the key factor in maintaining possession. Scoring off the rush isn’t exactly a bad thing though, as Forsberg produced two of his four highlight reel goals off the rush while Arvidsson scored one of his two in transition. JoFA is a series breaker and if they can remain healthy, the Jets will have their hands full.
An Eclectic Defense
Of the Jets’ defense, The Hockey Writers’ Judson Rempel says “The defense has suffered injuries and suspensions but hasn’t missed a beat. Tyler Myers and Josh Morrissey both missed a game, but Tucker Poolman and Joe Morrow have done a splendid job filling in and eating up minutes. Other than game 3, the team has done a great job clogging up the neutral zone and not allowing the opposing team any dangerous shots, relying on Hellebuyck to save everything he sees, which he has been doing.”
Josh Morrissey is no longer suspended and will be rejoining Jacob Trouba on the first pairing for Game 1. Both defenders are under 24 and becoming elite two-way players who excel in all situations. While both Trouba and Morrissey only tallied a single point during the first round, their defensive contributions were large. They’ll probably see tough minutes against the JoFA line for the majority of the series. It won’t be fair to judge them by the points they produce, but rather the points they keep off the board.
The second pairing will feature Dustin Byfuglien and Joe Morrow. As Rempel said, Morrow has filled in somewhat seamlessly, but who knows how long that’ll last. Morrow has never been better than a third pairing defenseman, but riding shotgun to Byfuglien has suited him nicely. The duo has combined for six points in five games, although five points have been produced by Byfuglien. This duo will be extremely physical and look to throw Predators forwards off of their game by pressuring them incessantly. I don’t know how many points these two will create, but I do know that the Predators will need to keep their heads up with these two on the ice.
Tucker Poolman stepped into a tough situation and excelled, but I’m not sure that’s good enough to keep him in the lineup. Ben Chiarot will most likely take the spot to the left of Tyler Meyers. Meyers had been injured throughout the first round but has played through it in some instances. While the left side might be a bit weak, the right side of the duo is top four worthy and could give the Predators fits.
A Golden Top Four
The Predators arguably have the best top four in the entire league, although you would not have come to that conclusion during the first round. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis make up the first pairing but focus more on offense rather than eating tough minutes. They did face Nathan MacKinnon for the majority of the series which explains their lack of even strength points, but that trend won’t likely continue against the Jets. They’ll receive more sheltered zone starts against the second and third offensive lines in order to play to Josi’s strengths. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both of Josi and Ellis score at about a point per game pace.
The real gem of the Predators’ defense is their second line, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. The duo is probably the best shutdown pairing in the NHL and will likely stay glued to Patrik Laine or Blake Wheeler for the entirety of the series. Like the Trouba and Morrissey pairing, this line shouldn’t be judged by their points produced but rather their opposition’s lack of points.
Matt Irwin and Alexei Emelin make up a real eyesore on a gorgeous defensive lineup. Weber will likely return this series, but won’t add much of consequence to the duo. The Jets could exploit this defensive liability in Winnipeg as they’ll have last change. I could talk forever about how bad some line matchups could be, but I’ll leave it at this. Predators fans better have a stress ball handy if the third pair is ever on the ice against Laine or Schiefele.
Two Vezina Candidates Collide
The two starting goaltenders of this series are two of the final three candidates for the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender in the NHL. Connor Hellebuyck and Pekka Rinne will look to backstop their clubs past the second round, but both have not been perfect so far. Rinne has a .909 save percentage and has looked extremely mortal. If you want the best stat separating Regular Season Rinne from Playoff Rinne, here it is. In 59 regular season games, Rinne had a .902 high danger save percentage at even strength. In the playoffs, though, he has a .705 high danger save percentage. Rinne just isn’t getting as much puck luck as he did. I thought he would eventually regress back to the average, but he has swung so far in the opposite direction that it’s almost like he’s paying the bill for an incredible regular season.
While I have watched a bit of the Jets, I think my colleague Judson Rempel said it best when talking about Hellebuyck. “He (Hellebuyck) is headed into this series on a high note, riding a shutout streak of 120-plus minutes. A Vezina nominee in just his second full season, Hellebuyck has never been in this high-stakes of a game. His calm demeanor will certainly help him, but the Jets chances in this series will rest on the 24-year-old goalie.”
I really want this series to go seven games. We as hockey fans deserve this matchup and we deserve it for as long as it can go. I think home ice advantage will play a huge role as I have the Predators winning it in seven games. My bold prediction is that each team wins all of their home games. Buckle up friends, because this looks like the best series of the entire playoffs.