Anticipation, excitement and a fair amount of nerves are to be expected ahead of a Game 7.
That’s the easy part. Or least the predictable part.
But for Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice, something else lingers ahead of two opponents preparing to decide which will move on and which will head home.
“There’s absolutely a different feel,” he said. “It’s the final game for one team.
“There’s definitely a calmness to it. There’s a finality coming. It brings out the best.”
After a back-and-forth slugfest of a second-round series with the Nashville Predators where neither club has imposed its will for longer than a period or two, the Jets are looking to get back to their best, or close to it, on the road in Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night.
“Simplicity,” Maurice added when asked what will finally decide the razor-thin margin. “The team that can play as close to their game as possible — their identity game — wins.”
That winner will take on the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final, while the loser of the matchup featuring the NHL’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams this season will be left to pick up the pieces.
Winnipeg had an opportunity to clinch in Monday’s Game 6 only to fall 4-0 on home ice and send things back to Nashville all tied up.
The pressure has now swung back to the veteran Predators, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points and made last spring’s Stanley Cup final. The Jets were just three points back in the overall standings.
Both sides have failed to win consecutive games, and the two powerful home teams during the regular schedule own a middling 2-4 record through six second-round games.
The speedy, youthful Jets have looked unstoppable at times only to be brought back to earth by the battle-tested Predators each time they’ve nosed in front.
Winnipeg will need one more push to get to the city’s first conference final.
“We’ve been prepared well and done a good job of fixing the things we have to fix in a loss and throwing it away and starting fresh,” said centre Paul Stastny, the Jets’ most experienced Game 7 participant with three under his belt. ”No one likes to lose, no one likes to be around guys when you’re losing.
“We’ve done a good job of not getting too high or too low after games and always focusing on the next one.”
Nashville comes in with far more pedigree in Game 7s after playing two in the 2016 playoffs. Predators centre Nick Bonino has suited up in five throughout his career, while defenceman P.K Subban and veteran forward Mike Fisher — a question mark after getting hurt in Game 6 — have taken part in four apiece.
This will be the first Game 7 for the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers, who moved to Winnipeg in 2011. The old Jets last played a Game 7 in 1992, losing to Vancouver before bolting for Phoenix to become the Coyotes four years later.
Only four players expected see action on Thursday for Winnipeg have played in a Game 7, while Nashville could have 16 or more.
“I’m glad our guys have some experience, I’m glad they’ve got some scars on them,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, who has 5-2 record in Game 7s. “Scars make you a little bit tougher.
“But at the end of the day it still comes down to those 60 minutes”
For the Jets to come out on top, it would be helpful if one or more of their young guns showed up.
Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers have combined for three goals and nine assists in the series, but have all faded in and out of the action at various points.
The lightning-quick Ehlers has struggled to get through a congested neutral zone, while Laine and Connor have probably deserved passing grades for their performances.
“(Ehlers has) got to get back to relaxing in terms of his expectations of every time he touches the puck something’s going to happen,” Maurice said. ”In playoffs that rarely happens.”
Maurice is a perfect 2-0 in Game 7s — both came on the road if Jets fans are looking for a good omen — but he also knows these winner-take-all affairs will test both coach and player.
“Game 7 is a different animal,” he said. ”Everything is focused on that.
“They’re the most fun.”