Sunday, 22 April 2018

Off To Smashville

For the first time in 31 years, the Winnipeg Jets can state that they're off to the next round. That next round just happens to take place for potentially four games in the defending Western Conference champion's city of "Smashville" as the Nashville Predators will meet the Winnipeg Jets. There's a lot to be excited about if you're a fan of both these teams, and, if you're the media, you seem to have a lot to whine about when it comes to these teams meeting. We'll get to the second part of that statement in a bit, but there should be a lot of eyes on this series as these two divisional powerhouses clash to see who is the best of the Central Division!

It took Nashville a little longer to dispatch the feisty Colorado Avalanche and their carousel of goaltenders than one may have thought. I predicted the series would be closer than most gave Colorado credit for, and it seemed like upstart team from Denver wasn't about complaining when Semyon Varlamov was ruled done for the season prior to the playoffs starting. Instead, they turned to Jonathan Bernier who was very good in the Mile High City this season, and he led the charge against a Nashville team that seemed a wee bit too overconfident in their approach to this series.

In the first three games of the series that saw Nashville open the series at home, the Predtaors surrendered the first goals at 6:36, 2:34, and 1:50 in those three games, respectively. There seemed to be a refocusing of sorts as they took those deficits into the first intermission - a 3-0 deficit in Game Three - and came to life in the second periods of each of those games. The only problem? Winnipeg, who scored first in each of their five games against Minnesota, is a much better team defensively than the Avalanche are. Early deficits were a death knell for the Wild against the Jets, so Nashville will need to be better in the first ten minutes of this next series of games if they hope to eliminate the surging Jets.

Goaltending will certainly be on a more even keel than what Jonathan Bernier and Andrew Hammond brought to the series. Neither played poorly, but neither are on the caliber of Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne. That will change when he looks 200-feet down the ice to the Jets' net and sees Vezina nominee Connor Hellebuyck standing in the blue paint. If Rinne continues to put up un-Vezina-like numbers of a 2.60 GAA and a .909 save percentage in this round, that will be more than enough to give the Jets' shooters confidence in scoring goals. While injuries certainly took their toll on the Wild lineup, Hellebuyck's 1.93 GAA is down from his regular season mark of 2.36 while his save percentage has remained consistent at .924. If this series comes down to goaltending, you'd have to give the nod to the more consistent goaltender right now as Connor Hellebuyck is outplaying his Vezina-nominee counterpart in Rinne.

There will be all kinds of chatter about the defence corps used by these two teams, but there is a significant difference between the two teams in the opening round. Nashville's blue line, while arguably one of the best in the league, generated just one goal on 69 shots while adding eight assists in the opening round of the playoffs. If you take Matthias Ekholm out of the equation, the five remaining defenders contributed just three assists - and yes, that includes PK Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi. If the Jets can contain Ekholm in a similar fashion as they did to Matt Dumba, the rest of the Nashville blue line will have to be more productive if they're going to win. With how they played against Colorado, it's going to be hard to kick up a few levels against Winnipeg.

That being said, Nashville's top four defenders were used twice as often as the bottom pairing of Alexei Emelin and Matt Irwin. Emelin averaged 11:28 per game while Matt Irwin checked in with 10:05 per game, so those two defenders are being used primarily to spell off the Big Four for short shifts. With the abuse that Winnipeg generously handed out to Minnesota in their defensive zone, can Ekholm, Josi, Subban, and Ellis withstand the punishment that Winnipeg will bring if they're playing no less than 22 minutes per night? Winnipeg is one of the top teams when it comes to hit through the first round of the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see how they handle the physicality.

And before we continue, let's not fall into the fallacy that more hits are good either. Hits, or more specifically finishing one's checks, is vitally important in wearing another team down. Running around and chasing players who have the puck specifically to throw hits is not good because your team doesn't have the puck. Possession does play a key role in the playoffs, and throwing hits for the sake of making SportsCentre's highlight reel will almost certainly result in losses.

Back to Winnipeg, and their defence corps has been far more impactful as they've contributed four goals on 67 shots and added eight assists. Even removing defensive leading scorer Dustin Byfuglien from the mix still yields four goals and three assists, so the contributions from the other six players who have slotted into the lineup have been good. Outside of Tucker Poolman, Winnipeg's regular six are playing between Joe Morrow's low of 16:34 to Dustin Byfuglien's high of 25:13, but removing those outliers sees the remaining four defenders in Trouba, Morrissey, Chiarot, and Myers skating between 17:20 and 22:28 on average per game. Fatigue in a long series can set in with the physical demands put on the body, but Winnipeg's bench management seems to be working out well as the team had a ton of jump in Game Five against the Wild.

However, all of this examination means very little right now. The two teams are watching video, preparing for their opponents, and making sure they're of good health before engaging in what will be an extremely entertaining series. Media across the land are lamenting that the top two teams in the NHL will meet each other in the second round, but all of this whining is ridiculous. Nashville finished with the highest point total with 117, and Winnipeg followed with 114. This is indisputable, and both teams should be commended. But this is the second year in a row that it's happened. If Boston can win their series, we'd also have the third-overall and fourth-overall teams going head-to-head in the second round, meaning two of the top-four regular season teams will be out in the second round.

Pump the brakes, though, and read this segment of the last line again with my bolded and capitalized words highlighting the most important part of the statement: two of the top-four REGULAR SEASON TEAMS will be out in the second round. Let that sink in as I wax poetic about why this is meaningless.

Since 1986 when the first President's Trophy was awarded to the best finisher in the regular season, eight times has the winning team gone on to capture the Stanley Cup. Some quick math says that's a 25% success rate as only eight times in 32 years has that been done. The most recent team to do it was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks playing in a shortened season, and the last team to do it in a full NHL season was 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings. In the last ten years, it has only been accomplished once. In the last ten years, the President's Trophy-winning team has only appeared in the Stanley Cup Final twice (Vancouver in 2011). In the last decade, only three of the President's Trophy-winning teams have made it to the conference finals (New York Rangers in 2015). For the remaining seven years, including this year, the President's Trophy-winning team has not advanced past the second round. Nashville could change that this season, but there's no guarantee they will.

This lazy narrative of anger and fury over the best regular season team meeting the second-best regular season team is ridiculous once the regular season ends. Ask Washington what it meant to be the best team in 2015 and 2016 when they lost to Pittsburgh who was the fourth-best in 2016 and second-best in 2017. Or the New York Rangers in 2015 who lost in the Conference Final to fifth-best Tampa Bay after Tampa eliminated second-best Montreal in the second-round. Or Boston in 2013 when they lost in the second round to ninth-best Montreal while second-overall Anaheim lost in the second round to tenth-overall Los Angeles. The season rankings once the regular season is over are meaningless outside of who gets to play at home four times in a seven-game series.

If the Jets happen to eliminate the Predators in this round, they not only advance to the Western Conference Final, but they also claim home-ice advantage for the remainder of the playoffs. To the victors go the spoils, and the winner of this series will claim home-ice advantage throughout the remainder of the playoffs. It doesn't mean that team is the best team in the NHL by any means. That's why they hand out hardware at the end of this tournament to determine which team was the best for the ENTIRE season, regular and playoffs combined.

Regardless of the rhetoric from the media, this is going to be an outstanding series of hockey. Forsberg, Johansen, Subban, Josi, and Rinne against Wheeler, Laine, Scheifele, Byfuglien, and Hellebuyck. The Central Division has never been more hotly contested by two teams, and we'll see who moves on to play one of Vegas or San Jose in two weeks.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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