By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – There was a brief moment of locker-room levity after the Jets had just blown a chance to clinch a spot in the Western Conference final for the first time in franchise — and the city’s — history.
Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler was asked by a reporter in the wake of Monday’s 4-0 home loss in Game 6 what he would have done if told at the start of the season his team would be headed to Nashville to battle in a winner-take-all showdown for a place in the third round of the playoffs?
“I would have given you a big kiss,” Wheeler responded, before quickly adding, “Not a lick. Let’s be clear.”
Despite the disappointment of failing to close out the Predators, the Jets will travel to Music City for Thursday’s decisive Game 7 knowing they’ve already won twice at Bridgestone Arena in a roller-coaster series where momentum has meant as much as home ice — next to nothing.
Neither team has won consecutive games, with the visitors owning a 4-2 record in deafening opposition venues where the Jets and Predators went a combined 60-16-6 in the regular season before going 5-1 in their first-round victories.
“You knew us and Nashville were probably going to run at each other,” said centre Paul Stastny, one of just a handful of Jets to play in multiple Game 7s. “You knew it was going to be a battle and now everyone got what they wanted.”
Winnipeg had it all to play for on Monday after grabbing a 6-2 win in Nashville in Game 5 for a 3-2 series lead.
The Manitoba capital had never seen its NHL teams — the first incarnation of the Jets or this new version that came to town in 2011 — win a second-round playoff game before this spring, let alone make a conference final.
But with their city and province ready to explode in celebration, the Jets wilted.
“It’s frustrating. It’s painful,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “You were right there. It’s an elimination game. There have been an awful lot of seven-game series that have happened in the history of the National Hockey League, and somebody was up 3-2 in every single one of them.
“They were good on the road, we were good in (Game 5). It’s gonna be a hell of a game.”
Battle-tested Nashville shut down Winnipeg’s attack Monday the same it did in a 2-1 victory at Bell MTS Place in Game 4 to even the series 2-2. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne was good when he had to be, while Filip Forsberg and Victor Arvidsson put up impressive performances in the biggest game of the season.
The Presidents’ Trophy winners and last year’s Stanley Cup finalists were never going to go quietly, but the Jets, who were second in the overall standings behind the Predators, didn’t give themselves a chance after failing to connect on three straight power plays late in the first period.
Nashville was relentless, while Winnipeg’s usually speedy roster seemed tight and indecisive, much like it did on home ice in Game 4.
“It’s been back and forth,” Stastny said of the series as a whole. “Sometimes you take your foot off the gas a little bit, you think it’s going to be a little easier, it’s never going to be like that.
“It’s just another learning experience from us and we’ll grow from it.”
As for why the visiting team has had so much success, and the home team so little, there are lots of theories, but no definitive answers.
“We’re playing a little bit harder on the road,” Jets forward Patrik Laine said. “I don’t know why that is because we should play the same game. It doesn’t matter if we’re home or on the road.
“We have had a couple of really good road games and we’re going to need one more.”
Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban, who guaranteed the series would return to Tennessee after that Game 5 loss, said the Predators will have to treat Thursday as if they’re in enemy territory.
“We can’t let our emotions get too high off our crowd,” said Subban, a veteran of four Game 7s. “If we play solid defence, I like our chances.”
In an exceptionally even series that has been filled with punches and immediate responses, it’s next to impossible trying to predict what will happen in the clincher, other than that one team will be heading home.
“You don’t want regrets,” Stastny said. “You don’t want to be scared of the situation or be scared of the pressure. You’ve gotta take it in, go with it, and have fun with it.
“Everyone’s gotta leave it on the line.”