Western semi pits NHL’s best in regular season in Jets-Preds

NASHVILLE — Playing the Winnipeg Jets is exactly why Nashville coach Peter Laviolette wanted home-ice advantage in the NHL playoffs.

Even if it’s a round — or two — earlier than anyone really wants.

Laviolette’s Predators play Winnipeg in the Western Conference semifinals after turning in their best season in franchise history to grab the right to start and end a series in the place called “Smashville.”

They edged out their Central Division rival by a mere three points for the Presidents’ Trophy, and this will be just the fifth series since 1990 between the NHL’s top two teams in the regular season.

“They wanted divisional battles, got them,” Laviolette said. “This should be a big series.”

It’s the second straight post-season that division foes and the league’s top finishers meet in this round. Pittsburgh, which wound up beating Nashville in the Stanley Cup Final, advanced to the Eastern finals by downing the Capitals in Game 7 in Washington.

Winnipeg and Nashville played so well that this series has been anticipated for weeks, so good it could be a Cup Final despite the Predators winning the regular-season series 3-1-1. Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban dismissed such talk Thursday, noting this round remains a long way from the Stanley Cup Final.

A thrilling series with lots of speed and goals? That the Jets and Predators can provide.

“The thing about winning, and I’m sure you ask anybody who’s won a Cup, is the steps that it takes to get there,” Subban said. “You have to go through some thick walls, and this is definitely one of the thickest walls that we’re going to have to get through to get there.”

Winnipeg goes against the defending Western Conference champs coming off the franchise’s first post-season series victory after relocating from Atlanta in 2011 with 10 Jets making their playoff debuts against the Wild. Winnipeg centre Bryan Little says that makes the Jets the underdogs by just a little bit.

“It’s going to be a really tough series and a tight series, so I think that’s why everyone’s so excited about it,” Little said.

Some things to know before Game 1 on Friday night:

VEZINA FINALISTS

Goalies for both the Jets and Predators are finalists for the Vezina Trophy with Nashville veteran Pekka Rinne looking to win the award in his fourth try.

Connor Hellebuyck made his post-season debut, shutting out Minnesota twice with a 1.94 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Rinne’s numbers weren’t nearly as glitzy against Colorado, but he tightened up over the final three games with a 1.34 GAA and .951 save percentage, including a shutout in the series clincher.

HOME AND ROAD

Nobody was better in the NHL at home than the Jets who went 32-7-2, and they have won 12 straight in Winnipeg, including all three in ousting Minnesota. The Jets haven’t lost at home since Feb. 27 — to Nashville. The Predators were the league’s best away from home (25-9-7). The Predators won twice on the road in the first round, including clinching in Colorado in Game 6.

OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER

Even with Rinne and Hellebuyck in net, these teams combined for 42 goals in five games in the regular season with Nashville outscoring the Jets 22-20. It was the most goals the Jets scored against any team, while they also gave up the most goals to any opponent. The Jets also ranked second in the regular season for both most goals (273) and average goals per game (3.33)

SHUT DOWN WHO?

Nashville’s top trio is nicknamed the “JOFA” line for Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. But the Predators’ top scoring line against Colorado was their third line of centre Nick Bonino with Austin Watson and Colton Sissons, who combined for 19 points. The Jets can match Nashville’s scoring depth with seven players scoring at least 43 points in the regular season led by Blake Wheeler (91 points) and Patrik Laine (team-high 44 goals).

SO DEFENSIVE

Nashville has four of the NHL’s best defencemen in Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Subban and Mattias Ekholm. But the group that led the league with 55 goals only had one goal in the first round, and that came in Game 6 from Ekholm. Subban says defending comes first for a team that ranked second in the regular season in allowing both the second-fewest goals (204) and average goals per game (2.49).

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