By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – Bryan Little believes the Winnipeg Jets are hungry underdogs heading into their highly anticipated second-round playoff series with the Nashville Predators.
The veteran forward agrees the teams almost mirror each other in statistics, but he tilted the scales a little bit toward Nashville for a couple of reasons.
The Predators finished first in the NHL regular-season standings with 117 points, three ahead of the Jets, plus Nashville almost hoisted the championship trophy last year.
“These guys were in the Stanley Cup finals last year,” Little said after the team practised Wednesday in preparation for Friday’s opening game in Nashville.
“They were the best team in the league during the season, so I would say we’re the underdogs. If anything, they might have an edge on us in some categories.
“But I think it’s close. It’s gonna be a really tough series and a tight series so I think that’s why everyone’s so excited about it.”
When asked if he preferred the underdog role, Little said it’s not like the Predators are heavy favourites.
“I wouldn’t say people would call us huge underdogs,” he said. “We finished really close in the standings, but they’ve been in this situation before.
“They were in the Stanley Cup final last year. We take it as a great challenge. We’d like nothing more than to upset these guys.”
The Predators lost last year’s championship final in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins after being the eighth seed.
Nashville defeated the Colorado Avalanche in six games in this year’s opening-round Western Conference series.
The Jets are in uncharted territory after winning the franchise’s first playoff series in five games against the Minnesota Wild.
Winnipeg winger Nikolaj Ehlers was on the fence about whether his team should wear the underdog tag.
“Yes and no,” Ehlers said. “(Nashville) got some experience from last year. We got some experience from the last five games and we’ve played some really good hockey, so I think this is a new season.
“We’ve taken a step up, and if we can keep this going the way we’re playing right now and make it even better, then it’s gonna be an exciting series.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said the word “underdog” is used more in the first round when it’s a top seed going against the bottom one.
“Then you get to this and there doesn’t look to be a Cinderella story coming out of this, other than Vegas but that started in August,” Maurice said. “(The Predators’) play says they’re an elite team so it’s close.”
The regular-season numbers tell the tale of two teams evenly matched in almost every main category, although Nashville clipped the Jets 3-1-1 in their five meetings that featured 41 goals in regulation.
The Predators finished with 53-18-11 record, while the Jets went 52-20-10.
The Jets had 277 goals-for, putting them second in the league. Nashville scored 267 times for seventh spot. The Predators’ goals-against was second at 211 and Winnipeg allowed 218 for fifth place.
Winnipeg’s power play was fifth at 23.4 per cent. Nashville finished 14th at 21.2 per cent. The Predators’ penalty kill was sixth at 81.9 per cent and the Jets tied for seventh at 81.8 per cent.
The series showcases two Vezina Trophy finalists in Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.
“They’ve got good goaltending as do we, that’s why I don’t know how the series will play out,” Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette told reporters after his team’s Wednesday practice.
Both clubs also have firepower and scoring depth.
Captain Blake Wheeler led the Jets with 91 points, including 23 goals. Sophomore sniper Patrik Laine posted a team-high 44 goals, 20 on the power play, and had 70 points.
Laine didn’t practise Wednesday and had left the two previous practices early, but Maurice continued to say the Finnish star will be fine.
Filip Forsberg topped the Predators with 26 goals and 64 points. Their top goal scorer was Viktor Arvidsson with 29 markers and 61 points.
Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban, who had 59 points, praised the Jets.
“Just a lot of skill, a lot of speed and size,” he said. “That’s what you need in hockey to have success. And like I said, I think they have all the intangibles. That’s why they had such a good season.”