NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has years of postseason experience, including a couple Game 7s and a Stanley Cup Final.
Connor Hellebuyck has the Winnipeg Jets on the verge of their first Western Conference final in his first playoff appearance, and the best comparison he can make to the looming Game 7 in Nashville is playing for Hockey East championships back in college.
“I have yet to be scored on in one, so I like those odds,” Hellebuyck said. “This has nothing to do with that. This is whole new level and you’ve just got to get into the game as much as you can.”
Nobody has reflected the roller-coaster ride of this thrilling Western Conference semifinal between the NHL’s top two teams in the regular season than their Vezina Trophy finalists. Rinne has been pulled from not one but two games – both on his own ice – before staving off elimination in Game 6 with his second shutout this postseason.
“When you think about Game 7, as a team, as an individual, you’re just going to give it all and do your best and do it as a team and trust your teammates,” Rinne said Wednesday. “I think that’s the best formula and focus on your own team.”
Hellebuyck’s stats include a 2-1 record in Nashville in this series, which ends Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the only Game 7 of the second round this postseason. Hellebuyck gave up three goals in a 4-0 home loss Monday night , turning this into a winner-take-all game for the right to play Vegas in the conference final.
“We know it’s all on the line, and nothing in the past is going to bother us,” Hellebuyck said. “We can’t let it. This is going to be the most fun game we’re going to play and I think a lot of us are going to enjoy ourselves.”
A Justin Timberlake concert Wednesday night pushed Game 7 to Thursday night, giving the 35-year-old Rinne two days of rest. During the regular season, the Predators goalie went 11-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average and .936 save percentage during the season when he got two days to rest between games. “It’s nice to have that extra day,” Rinne said.
Edge in experience
The eventual Stanley Cup champion in each of the past five seasons has won a Game 7 along the way. This is the Predators’ third Game 7. The Jets will become the 29th active NHL franchise to play a Game 7 on Thursday night. Nashville is among both the 14 teams to win their first Game 7 and the 10 who did that on the road, beating Anaheim in 2016 to clinch a first-round series.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, 5-2 in Game 7s, is one of only four NHL coaches to win a Game 7 in each of four different playoff rounds (Pat Burns, Mike Keenan and John Tortorella). He also has 19 Predators who have at least one Game 7 on their resume. Jets coach Paul Maurice is 2-0 himself, though only seven of his Jets have played in a Game 7.
Nashville finished only three points (117) ahead of Winnipeg (114) for the Presidents’ Trophy, and this series has been about as close as possible. The Jets have more goals (22-18), while Nashville has more shots on goal (217-213). But even-strength shot attempts are 338 apiece with each team blocking 97 shots. The Predators have only three more hits (144-141).
Top line matters
Nashville’s JOFA line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson combined for eight points in keeping the Predators alive with a 4-0 win in Game 6. Winnipeg’s top line of Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele had eight points in Game 5.
“It’s the final game for one team,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “So, there’s lot of emotion, lots of excitement. But there’s definitely a calmness to it. There’s a finality coming. It brings out the best I think.”
The dream game
“Ever since I started playing hockey, I was five years old, you put yourself in that position where you play a Game 7 in the playoffs,” Jets forward Mathieu Perrault said. “This is what we play for. So this should be the most fun we’ve had all year.”
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