By Jim Diamond, The Canadian Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It wasn’t their best, but thanks to Connor Hellebuyck, the Winnipeg Jets took the early series lead.
Hellebuyck made 47 saves to lead the Jets to a 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal matchup on Friday night. Nashville was the only team that finished ahead of the Jets in the standings in the regular season and Friday’s win shifts the home ice advantage to Winnipeg.
Despite putting 48 shots on Hellebuyck, Kevin Fiala’s third-period goal was the only one that eluded the Vezina Trophy finalist.
“We weren’t at our best, I’ll give you that,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “I think we can play better and I think we will as this series goes on, but we pay our goaltender too.”
Maurice and Hellebuyck both noted that many of Nashville’s chances came from outside the high-danger scoring areas.
“I thought the guys in front of me were allowing me to see shots,” Hellebuyck said. “They were blocking the ones they needed to block and our details were right. It’s just a product of how hard we’ve been working.”
Mark Scheifele scored twice for Winnipeg, while Brandon Tanev and Paul Stastny added goals as well.
The Predators know they need to convert in order to get back in the series.
“Yeah, I thought we played well,” said captain Roman Josi. “I thought we started well. We had a good first period and kind of followed it up. Like I said, we had a lot of shots, a lot of zone time. Now pucks have just got to go in.”
After shutting out Minnesota in the final two games in the first round, Hellebuyck’s shutout streak ended after 163 minutes.
Tanev scored the game’s first goal at 14:51 of the opening period.
After withstanding a strong Nashville push to begin the game, Bryan Little forced a turnover in the neutral zone and outbattled Predators defenceman Alexei Emelin in the right circle before sending a backhand pass toward Tanev at the left goal-post. The puck hit the stick of Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne and Tanev tapped the rebound in for his second goal of the post-season.
Rinne is also a Vezina finalist.
Tanev’s goal was Winnipeg’s fourth and final shot in the first. Nashville put 20 shots on Hellebuyck in the period.
The Predators did not take any satisfaction from their dominance on the shot clock.
“Yeah, but we got to win hockey games,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette. “I think you can hang your hat on that sometimes in the regular season when you’re talking about a process and the long haul and the big picture. But right now, you give me two choices on where to be, our game or their win, I’d take the win. It’s about winning hockey games right now. But like I said we’ll look at it and try to get better.”
Stastny doubled the Jets lead at 9:01 of the second.
Patrik Laine’s shot from the slot rang off of the mask of Rinne, a fellow Finn, and the rebound landed on Stastny’s tape outside the crease, where he put it by the fallen goaltender.
At 17:51 of the second, Scheifele made it 3-0.
Blake Wheeler was whistled for goaltender interference at 15:38, and late in that Nashville power play, Filip Forsberg had an opportunity to cut the Winnipeg lead in half with a one-timer from the left circle, but his shot rang off of the left post. Soon after, Wheeler led a rush into the Nashville zone and dropped a pass for Scheifele in the high slot, where he snapped a wrist shot by Rinne on the stick side.
“That’s always nice,” Hellebuyck said. “I guess that’s how hockey goes. You get a lucky bounce at one end and capitalize at the other. I guess that was the key tonight.”
Juuse Saros replaced Rinne at the start of the third period.
Fiala got Nashville on the scoreboard at 1:23 of the third.
From the right point, Ryan Ellis sent a pass to Kyle Turris at the right of the Winnipeg net and he made a one-touch pass to an unchecked Fiala in front for an easy tap in for his second playoff goal.
Ellis left the game on his next shift after getting cut when Ben Chiarot’s skate clipped him in the face near his left eye. After going to the dressing room for repairs, the defenceman returned midway through the period.
Scheifele added an empty-net goal in the final minute of the game. He has five goals in his past three games.
“It’s a game of inches sometimes, and we’re happy with the win,” Scheifele said. “We knew they were going to come out firing. We knew the fans were going to be loud, but it was an exciting game to be a part of, exciting game to listen to that crowd.”