Los Angeles (AFP) – Paul Stastny and Mark Scheifele scored twice each as the Winnipeg Jets routed the Nashville Predators 5-1 in game seven to book a spot in the NHL Western Conference finals against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Scheifele scored his league-leading 11th goal of the post-season into an empty net and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck made 21 of his 37 stops in the third period for the Jets who reached the Conference finals for the first time since the franchise moved from Atlanta after the 2010-11 NHL season.
“We had to go through a little adversity early in the season and then we hit our stride and have been playing with confidence ever since,” said Jets forward Blake Wheeler.
“Our best games in this series were after tough losses. We knew if we came out and had a good start and take the crowd out of it, then we could make a game of it.”
The Jets next face the red-hot expansion Golden Knights for a spot in the NHL Stanley Cup finals with game one of the best-of-seven series on Saturday night.
Wheeler had two assists on Thursday for the Jets, who jumped out to a 2-0 lead early which resulted in a rare first-period goaltending change for Predators in front of a crowd of 17,500 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Tyler Myers scored 8:41 into the first and then Stastny scored his first goal just two minutes later which chased the Predator’s All-Star Pekka Rinne from the net.
Both goals were scored while the Jets players were standing partly below the goal line.
Rinne, who finished with just five saves on seven shots, was replaced by backup and fellow Finland native Juuse Saros.
“Two terrible goals. It felt like the puck was just finding a way (past me) but there are no excuses,” said Rinne. “It is a huge disappointment.
– ‘Tough to swallow’ –
“I feel responsible for the season ending. It is tough to swallow. I let my teammates down.”
Scheifele also had one assist for a three point night for the Jets, who were playing in their first game seven since the move from Atlanta.
Stastny has been a shining light for the Jets since being acquired from the St. Louis Blues at the trading deadline. He has six goals in the playoffs and five in the last eight games.
“There are very few teams I thought about waiving my no-trade clause for but Winnipeg was one of them,” Stastny said.
Stastny said he is getting better at dealing with the pressure of playing in a winner-take-all showdowns.
“I just tried to be calm,” he said. “I played in a few game sevens early in my career and I was too nervous. I put too much pressure on myself.
“It is a lot of stress to play in a game seven. You’ve got to enjoy it.”
P.K. Subban scored the only goal for the Predators, who finished a disappointing 1-3 at home in the series.
“I don’t think that is a better team than us over there, but it didn’t go our way,” said Subban.
Wheeler, of the US, said he is looking forward to continuing their playoff run in Winnipeg which has some of the most loyal and loudest fans in the league.
“I haven’t seen an empty seat in our building in seven years and we have only made the playoffs twice,” Wheeler said.