The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are set to kick off their sure-to-be high octane second round series on Friday night. The Western Conference Semifinal is easily the most anticipated playoff match-up of the year… and that’s with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals playing each other over in the East.
What a difference a year makes, eh?
With the NHL’s best regular season team going up against the NHL’s second-best regular season team — another argument for another day — let’s take a look at the five players to watch over the next (probably) seven games.
1. Patrik Laine
The Winnipeg sniper had just two goals against the Minnesota Wild in the first round. Now, while he did add two helpers and register a plus-three rating in the five game series, Laine is able to produce much more. Also, neither of his goals (and only one of his assists) came on the power play. If the depleted Wild defense was able to contain him, Nashville’s should too.
2. Pekka Rinne
The eventual 2017-18 Vezina Trophy winner played well in the first round, despite what the numbers say. His .909 save percentage certainly leaves some to be desired but his 2.60 goals-against average is more than acceptable. Heck, he allowed two goals or less in four of the six games against the Avalanche. A team — especially one that has the offensive prowess of the Predators — can’t ask their goaltender for much more. The problem was the defense in front of the Kempele, Finland native wasn’t superb and he had to keep his team in games. For the most part he did but he’s not facing Colorado now, he’s facing the Jets, and that poses a whole new level of threat. If the blueline (and forwards) can play better defense in front of him while Rinne stays around that two goals-per-game average mark, Nashville should be in good shape to advance.
3. Dustin Byfuglien
The Winnipeg alternate captain will inevitably add his name to the “most hated opponents” list by the time this series is over. He’s big, he’s nasty and welcomes physical contact. As the biggest player on the ice at any given time, he’ll try to impose his will and intimidate the smaller Preds forwards and streaking defensemen. If he can get in their heads, the Nashville attack will be trying to solve Byfuglien and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, giving Winnipeg a strong advantage over the next two weeks.
4. Nashville’s third line
Championship teams find ways to win and sometimes that means clutch performances from some lesser-known players. This is exactly what happened in the first round against the Colorado Avalanche. The third line of Austin Watson, Nick Bonino and Colton Sissons generated 41 percent of the Predators offense, scoring nine of their 22 goals. Their contributions helped overcome the struggles of the Kyle Turris-led second line which averaged less than a point-per-game combined. Can Nashville expect Watson, Bonino and Sissons to produce at a similar clip and, if they can, will the Turris, Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith return to their regular season form? Either way, to survive against the Jets, Nashville will need goals from lines other than the top threesome.
5. Toby Enstrom
The veteran defenseman who has spent his entire career in the Jets/Thrashers organization, is about to play his first hockey since March 23. He missed some time in December and January as well. He doesn’t exactly put up the numbers he used to (two 50-point seasons in Atlanta but none over 33 since the franchise move to Manitoba) but he has been a steady force on their blueline. He was second on the team in plus/minus both in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and was a single rating outside their top 10 this season despite missing 39 games. At least to start, he’ll be paired with Byfuglien. Can the big man help get Enstrom’s legs back under him or will he be a liability against a team that loves to push the pace of the play and can transition from defense to offense with the best of them?