It’s hard not to look at the Nashville Predators this season and wonder if that team is not where the Jets could be right now if not for the heroics of their goaltending. The Preds have a nice collection of talent both on offense and on the blueline – it could be argued that they are maybe a little more well rounded club than the Jets are. Their offense is producing at around the same level as the Jets are (only 10 goals separates the two teams in the goals for category with the Jets having played two more games) and their defense has statistically been better than the Jets with just an 81.8 xGF rate while the Jets are at a sky high 98.8 xGF.
The difference? Goaltending. Winnipeg has a team save percentage of .907 while Nashville’s is second last in the league at .889 and that is with over 200 less shots faced than what Winnipeg has had to deal with. It’s a big part of why Paul Maurice is being somewhat inexplicably linked to Jack Adams trophy talk, while Peter Laviolette finds himself freshly unemployed even having helped guide the Predators to a Stanley Cup berth just a few seasons ago.
Goaltending no doubt will play a big part in this game today as will a couple of other things…
Special teams will be key
All things considered, this game could possibly be won by the team that gets the better end of special teams.
Both the Jets and Predators have brutal penalty kill units, ranking 31st and 30th in the NHL respectively. The Jets penalty kill was actually doing ok for a pair of games on the road, going a perfect five for five in Montreal and Toronto before giving up a goal on four chances against in Boston. That overall is still a much needed improvement over the goal-a-game barely over 50% effort the Jets had through December. Nashville meanwhile has been on a Jets-like run of bad penalty killing of their own as they’ve given up power play goals in each of their last six games, and have only killed 12 of 22 power play opportunities (55%) against over that span.
Winnipeg’s power play has been pretty strong as well going 5 for 12 (42%) for the month of January compared to the 5 for 20 Nashville has gone in their five games since the calendar flipped.
The Predators do average a little more time in the penalty box than the Jets do but the gap isn’t overly big. Nashville on average this season takes 9.5 penalty minutes per game, while the Jets are still one of the league leaders in that stat, only taking 6.9 PIM/game.
Goalie uhhh.. goals?
Connor Hellebuyck has won his last two games both in Montreal and then Toronto stopping 54 of 59 shots faces through those two games – good for a .915 save percentage. He’s had one regulation loss in his last five starts and as we’ve noted a multiple times here over the last few games, after a stretch of erratic play in late December, he has settled back in to his regular play style of being calm in the net, staying square to the puck and not lunging all over to make Pavelec-like saves.
Being that this is an afternoon game, it could also bode well for Helle and the Jets. The Jets are 6-1-1 this season in afternoon games (the six wins this season has tied a franchise season record) and Hellebuyck has played in all eight games having posted a .937 save percentage.
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has been a little more up and down in his play recently. Over his last five games started he’s gone 2-3-0 with a .908 save percentage. He’s had standout games in a win against the Los Angeles Kings and a tough loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He struggled to make key stops against the Dallas Stars during the Winter Classic and against the Boston Bruins a week ago (which we understand happens to the best of teams really.)
But… He did score an epic goal last time out against the Chicago Blackhawks, the first goalie goal in the NHL since 2013.