In Nashville’s magical, set-the-world-on-fire run to the first Stanley Cup final in franchise history last year, Pekka Rinne was the magician, stopping 93% of the shots he faced and allowing fewer than two goals per game.
In Nashville’s Game 7 matchup with Winnipeg this year, Rinne allowed two goals in less than 11 minutes, and the Jets took Game 7, 5-1, to move on to the Western Conference Finals.
The Jets got on the board first when Nik Ehlers dug out the puck in the corner and worked it back up the half-wall. Tyler Myers came down from the point and took the exchange from Ehlers, moved down to left goal line extended and lobbed a seemingly harmless shot on goal. But Rinne, who was positioned properly, somehow failed to completely seal the left post with his skate, and Myers’s shot trickled through. At first only Myers knew it was in, but soon everyone wearing yellow knew they’d have to stage a comeback.
That task got even more difficult just two minutes later as Paul Stastny wrapped around the goal to Rinne’s right and forked a shot up high. Rinne did well to make the initial save, but he started cheating to his left to prepare for a potential centering pass. Instead, Stastny lifted a backhand shot right back on cage, over Rinne’s right shoulder and in. For the third time this series, and fourth time this postseason, Juuse Saros came in to stem the tide. There were whispers that Peter Laviolette, a former Cup winner and three-time Cup finalist as a head coach, had simply made this move to avoid using his timeout and give Rinne some time to get settled. The plan, the reasoning went, was to put Rinne back in in the next period.
Instead, he won’t be playing again until next season. For a time, Nashville played well enough to make a comeback. On the power play for the second time, Ryan Johansen moved down the right flank and spun a no-look backhand pass to set up a cannon of a shot from between the dots from P.K. Subban, and the blast went off the right post and in with just over four minutes to go in the first.
That’s as close as Nashville would get. Saros once again played well in Rinne’s stead, but the Jets finally got to him late in the second. Filip Forsberg fanned on a clearing attempt in his own zone, and Blake Wheeler served up a perfect pass right in the wheelhouse of Mark Scheifele, and the burgeoning star made no mistake on a killer one-timer for a 3-1 lead.
As if that scoreline weren’t daunting enough, Winnipeg was 44-1-1 this season when leading after two periods, including a perfect 7-0 mark in these playoffs. Make that a perfect 8-0. Nashville did all it could, throwing 21 shots on Connor Hellebuyck in the third period alone, but the Winnipeg netminder stood tall. Stastny cashed in again on the power play in the third on a rebound off a shot from Patrik Laine to make the lead three, before Scheifele cashed in again with Saros on the bench on an unselfish feed from Kyle Connor to seal the deal.
For the first time since the franchise was reborn, the Winnipeg Jets, a team with zero playoff wins since its move from Atlanta, will move on to the Western Conference Finals. They’ve already taken down the best team in hockey—no team recorded more points in the regular season than the Preds—but if they want to make the Cup Finals, the Jets will have to take down another team no one expected to still be standing in mid-May: the Vegas Golden Knights. That series starts on Saturday.