NASHVILLE — Paul Stastny had two goals and an assist, Connor Hellebuyck made 36 saves, and the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series on Thursday night.
Mark Scheifele also scored twice, including one into an empty net, while Tyler Myers had the other goal for Winnipeg. Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler each had two assists.
P.K. Subban replied for the Predators.
Pekka Rinne allowed two goals on seven shots before getting the hook for Nashville midway through the first period. Juuse Saros made 14 saves the rest of the way.
The Jets don’t have much time to soak of up the victory.
Winnipeg hosts the expansion Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.
In a back-and-forth slugfest of a series where neither team was ever able to really impose its will on the other for more than a period or two, the Jets jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a bad-angle shot from Myers at 8:41 of the first.
The big defenceman pinched down the boards and fired a puck from the goal line that somehow snuck between Rinne’s skate and the near post for his third of the playoffs.
The Jets further stunned the previously raucous crowd at Bridgestone Arena just 2:06 later on another stinker from Rinne when Stastny followed up his own rebound at the side of the Nashville net to chip home his fifth after the Predators netminder came off the near post.
That spelled the end of the night for Rinne — a Vezina Trophy finalist pulled for the third time in the series, and fourth time in these playoffs.
Hellebuyck, also in the running for the Vezina as the league’s top goalie in the regular season, made a couple of big stops early, but Nashville responded on its second power play at 15:54 when Subban took a nice behind-the-back pass from Ryan Johansen and wired a one-timer for his fourth of the series, and fourth of the playoffs.
Subban pointed to his bench after the goal before celebrating with teammates near centre ice.
The Jets, who only got one shot on Saros the rest of the first after Rinne was pulled, had a couple of opportunities in the second when both Stastny and Bryan Little were stopped from in close.
Hellebuyck then made two big stops of Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith before Scheifele made it 3-1 with 2:10 left in the period when he took a feed from Wheeler and wired a shot past Saros for his sixth of the series.
The goal was also Scheifele’s 10th of the playoffs to tie him with Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel for the overall lead.
The Predators pushed to open the third, but the Jets, who won a league-best 42 games in the regular season when leading after 40 minutes, made it 4-1 on Stastny’s second of the night with 8:01 left while on the power play as Winnipeg picked up its third regulation victory in Nashville of the series — a building where the Predators were 25-9-7 in the regular season.
Scheifele then iced it into an empty net to take the outright lead in the playoffs with his 11th.
Last year’s Stanley Cup finalist, Nashville fought off elimination in Winnipeg on Monday by picking up a 4-0 victory on Rinne’s 34-save shutout, the third time the Predators rebounded from a loss in the series to tie things up.
But in a razor-thin matchup where neither side won two straight, Winnipeg delivered the decisive blow to book the city’s first-ever trip to a conference final as the visiting team finished the series with a 5-2 record.
The old Jets only advanced to the second round twice, getting swept by Edmonton in both 1985 and 1987, before relocating to Phoenix in 1996. This incarnation moved to town from Atlanta in 2011, but was beaten in four straight by Anaheim in 2011 in its only other playoff appearance.
The Predators and Jets finished the regular season with the two best records in the NHL — Nashville won its first Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points, while Winnipeg was right behind with 114.
Notes: The Predators had 16 players in the lineup with at least one Game 7 under their belt, while the Jets had just four, not including backup goalie Steve Mason. … Nashville was without veteran centre Mike Fisher (lower-body injury), meaning Ryan Hartman drew into the lineup after sitting out Game 6. Alexie Emelin took the place of Matt Irwin on the Predators’ blue line. … Thursday was the first Game 7 in Jets/Thrashers history, while it also marked the first time the Predators hosted a winner-take-all encounter. Nashville was 1-1 in Game 7s on the road in the 2016 playoffs.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press