In Nashville’s magical, set-the-world-on-fire run to the first Stanley Cup final in franchise history last year, Pekka Rinne was the magician, stopping 93% of the shots he faced and allowing fewer than two goals per game.
In Nashville’s Game 7 matchup with Winnipeg this year, Rinne allowed two goals in less than 11 minutes, and the Jets took Game 7, 5-1, to move on to the Western Conference Finals.
The Jets got on the board first when Nik Ehlers dug out the puck in the corner and worked it back up the half-wall. Tyler Myers came down from the point and took the exchange from Ehlers, moved down to left goal line extended and lobbed a seemingly harmless shot on goal. But Rinne, who was positioned properly, somehow failed to completely seal the left post with his skate, and Myers’s shot trickled through. At first only Myers knew it was in, but soon everyone wearing yellow knew they’d have to stage a comeback.
That task got even more difficult just two minutes later as Paul Stastny wrapped around the goal to Rinne’s right and forked a shot up high. Rinne did well to make the initial save, but he started cheating to his left to prepare for a potential centering pass. Instead, Stastny lifted a backhand shot right back on cage, over Rinne’s right shoulder and in. For the third time this series, and fourth time this postseason, Juuse Saros came in to stem the tide. There were whispers that Peter Laviolette, a former Cup winner and three-time Cup finalist as a head coach, had simply made this move to avoid using his timeout and give Rinne some time to get settled. The plan, the reasoning went, was to put Rinne back in in the next period. Instead, he won’t be playing again until next season.
“I feel very much responsible for the season ending at this point. I felt good, no injuries, totally healthy, but total ups and downs throughout the playoffs, biggest moment of the season — it’s a terrible feeling when you let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight,” Rinne said to reporters after the game.
For a time, Nashville played well enough to make a comeback. On the power play for the second time, Ryan Johansen moved down the right flank and spun a no-look backhand pass to set up a cannon of a shot from between the dots from P.K. Subban, and the blast went off the right post and in with just over four minutes to go in the first.
That’s as close as Nashville would get. Saros once again played well in Rinne’s stead, but the Jets finally got to him late in the second. Filip Forsberg fanned on a clearing attempt in his own zone, and Blake Wheeler served up a perfect pass right in the wheelhouse of Mark Scheifele, and the burgeoning star made no mistake on a killer one-timer for a 3-1 lead.
As if that scoreline weren’t daunting enough, Winnipeg was 44-1-1 this season when leading after two periods, including a perfect 7-0 mark in these playoffs. Make that a perfect 8-0. Nashville did all it could, throwing 21 shots on Connor Hellebuyck in the third period alone, but the Winnipeg netminder stood tall. Stastny cashed in again on the power play in the third on a rebound off a shot from Patrik Laine to make the lead three, before Scheifele cashed in again with Saros on the bench on an unselfish feed from Kyle Connor to seal the deal.
“I think right now we’re just thrilled to move on,” Wheeler said after the game. “We’re pretty pleased to knock off a team like Nashville. That was every bit the series we expected it to be.”
“I thought we had looks. I thought we had chances. We brought the puck to the net and did some good things, but tonight wasn’t our night,” defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “Obviously, this year wasn’t our year, and it’s something we’ve got to learn from, grow from, and move on.”
For the first time since the franchise was reborn, the Winnipeg Jets, a team with zero playoff wins since its move from Atlanta, will move on to the Western Conference Finals. They’ve already taken down the best team in hockey—no team recorded more points in the regular season than the Preds—but if they want to make the Cup Finals, the Jets will have to take down another team no one expected to still be standing in mid-May: the Vegas Golden Knights. That series starts on Saturday.
WPG wins series, 4-3 | Full Recap | Box Score
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT
After two goals on seven shots inside the first 11 minutes, Laviolette pulled Pekka Rinne for the third time this series.
Rinne’s positioning on the first is ok, but his stick placement is not: Myers’s impossible-angle shot bounces off Rinne’s stick and somehow past his left skate to signal the beginning of a long night (or perhaps a short night) for the Nashville netminder.
Stastny ended Rinne’s night early and ultimately sealed the series by pushing in his own rebound on a backhand.
- Paul Stastny, WPG — An under-the-radar deadline acquisition that was picked up just for situations like these, Paul Stastny tallied three points, including the eventual game-winner, to lead the way.
- Connor Hellebuyck, WPG — He’s had one or two poor games this postseason, but in every other one, he’s been sensational. Hellebuyck made 36 saves Thursday, 21 in the third period, might win the Vezina Trophy this season and will certainly be a fixture in this league for years to come.
- Mark Scheifele, WPG — We could’ve given this spot to Laviolette for the prudent move he made, but Scheifele is a guy who can legitimately do it all. Tonight he scored two goals, tallied three hits and three blocks and won more than 50% of his draws. He’s a veritable star in the making.
And then there were four. Winnipeg will go up against Vegas in the surprise matchup of all surprise matchups starting on Saturday. Starting Friday, in a series that a few more people might have predicted, Washington will take on Tampa Bay after the Capitals finally got past the Penguins in six games, and the Lightning responded from a poor Game 1 to shut down the Bruins in five. Take a more in-depth look of the Eastern Conference finals here.