NASHVILLE — The Winnipeg Jets are headed to the first Western Conference final in their short history after knocking off the N.H.L.’s best team in the regular season.
Tyler Myers and Paul Stastny scored 2 minutes 6 seconds apart in the first period, and the Jets stunned the Nashville Predators, 5-1, on Thursday night in their first Game 7 — continuing an amazing run for a team swept in its previous two playoff appearances.
Stastny finished with a second goal and an assist, and Mark Scheifele also had two goals. Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor each had two assists.
Connor Hellebuyck made 36 saves for Winnipeg, which won three of four games in Nashville after missing the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points, by three points to the Predators.
The Jets host Vegas in Game 1 on Saturday in a conference final nobody could have predicted when the season started.
“I think we came in with a lot of confidence,” said Blake Wheeler,” the Jets’ captain. “We knew we had a deep group with a lot of talent. We had to go through a little bit of adversity early in the season, but we have played with a lot of confidence ever since.”
P. K. Subban scored for Nashville, now the ninth Presidents’ Trophy winner in 10 years not to win the Stanley Cup.
The best season in Predators history ended earlier than a year ago, but in the same fashion on their own ice. They lost to Pittsburgh in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final last June.
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, a Vezina Trophy finalist along with Hellebuyck, was chased for the third time in this series after giving up two goals on seven shots. He lasted just 10:07 for the quickest exit by a starting goalie in a Game 7.
These teams combined for 231 points in the regular season, making this series the two best teams on points ever to meet in a series before a conference final. This was the third Game 7 all-time for Nashville, which had a big edge in experience over the Jets playing on this stage.
Nashville also brought out the star power once again with Sheryl Crow singing the national anthem and the former Titans running back Eddie George waving a towel to rev up the crowd. A couple of catfish hit the ice before the puck dropped.
The Predators took five of the first six shots, but then the Jets stunned the crowd. Myers squeezed a wrister between the post and Rinne’s left skate for a 1-0 lead at 8:40 of the first. Then Stastny put a backhander off Rinne and into the net for a 2-0 lead on just seven shots. Nashville Coach Peter Laviolette pulled Rinne for Juuse Saros, trying to snap the Predators out of a slow start while saving his timeout.
“Obviously, I feel responsible for the season ending at this point,” Rinne said. “I can’t point at anything. Felt good, no injuries, totally healthy. The biggest moment of the season — it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down. It’s tough to swallow.”
He added: “Obviously, two terrible goals at the wrong time. You feel good, first shot of the game, you make a good save on the wraparound. There’s no excuses. That’s a huge disappointment.”
Subban started a Nashville rally with his fourth power-play goal of this series with a big one-timer from Ryan Johansen over Hellebuyck’s stick at 15:54. Subban then pointed to the Nashville bench and, once there, yelled at his teammates.
In the second, the Jets simply dominated keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Only Saros making save after save kept the score at 2-1 until Scheifele’s snap shot for his 10th goal this postseason from the left circle with 2:10 left in the period. It was the first goal Saros had allowed in four appearances this postseason.
Stastny sealed the victory with his sixth goal this postseason on the Jets’ lone power play at 11:59. Scheifele added an empty-net goal with 2:33 left.
Field Level Media contributed reporting.