Winnipeg is jetting into history.
The last remaining Canadian team kept its Stanley Cup hopes alive, advancing to the NHL’s Western Conference final with a 5-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
Early first-period goals from Tyler Myers and Paul Stastny and one late in the second from Mark Scheifele, his sixth of the series, fuelled the Jets to the biggest win in franchise history.
Stastny added a third-period goal and Scheifele tacked on an empty-netter, ensuring the Jets — a team that bolted to Arizona in 1996, then resurfaced after the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011 — would get past the halfway mark to the Stanley Cup for the first time.
The Jets still have a chance to do what no Canadian team has done since Montreal in 1993 — win the Stanley Cup. The Canucks lost to Boston in 2011. Ottawa made the conference final last year.
The Jets will host the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday in Game 1 of the Western Conference final (7 p.m., CBC). The Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and Washington Capitals begins Friday night (8 p.m., CBC) in Tampa.
If the Jets have captured the imagination of Canadian hockey fans with their whiteouts, likeability and reclaimed hockey history, the Golden Knights have captured the imagination of hockey fans everywhere, a team of castoffs pulling off the unthinkable.
The Knights are the first expansion team since the 1967 St. Louis Blues to make the Stanley Cup semifinals. Those Blues had the built-in advantage of being in the all-expansion West Division, with league rules at the time ensuring a first-year team would make the Cup final via divisional playoffs. The Knights have been idle since eliminating the San Jose Sharks in six games on Sunday.
In Nashville, the Jets got off to a 2-0 lead on a couple of sharp-angled goals, chasing Pekka Rinne halfway through the first period with Juuse Saros taking over. Rinne’s 10 minutes and seven seconds in net marked the shortest Game 7 start by a goalie in NHL history. It was the third time Rinne, a Vezina Trophy candidate, was pulled in the series.
Rinne looked bad on Myers’ opener, with the goalie’s poorly placed stick helping guide the puck in. And on Stastny’s goal, Rinne couldn’t find the puck after making the initial save. Stastny followed up on a rebound and scored to the short side.
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Rallying the Predators, P.K. Subban drew a penalty and scored on the ensuing power play to cut Winnipeg’s lead to 2-1 before the first period ended.
The Jets added to their lead, though, with a goal by Scheifele — the first Saros had allowed in any of his relief appearances.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, also a Vezina finalist, withstood Nashville’s inevitable pressure.
The Predators — Presidents’ Trophy winners and Cup favourite to many — are out one year after losing the Stanley Cup final to the Pittsburgh Penguins. An overflow crowd — both inside and outside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena — went home disappointed and perhaps wondering whether the club’s window for winning is closing.
There will be questions for GM David Poile to answer, especially about Rinne, now 35 and with a history of disappointing playoff performances following stellar regular seasons.
Poile also made some in-season moves, including luring former captain Mike Fisher — unavailable for Game 7 with a lower-body injury — out of retirement to help down the stretch. He made multiple trades at the deadline, acquiring winger Ryan Hartman and forward Tyler Gaudet. Those were minor compared to the three-team blockbuster in November that saw Kyle Turris land in Nashville, with the Predators sending prospects Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev and a second-round pick to Colorado. Turris did not score in the post-season.
Winnipeg’s big in-season deal — adding Stastny from the Blues as a solid second-line centre — loomed much larger with a big performance in Game 7.