Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne of Finland skates to his bench during a time out against the St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
In combining for 42 goals in five regular-season games and 25 in their first three playoff games, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets often put on what coaches and players alike have described as a track meet on skates.
In Thursday night's 2-1 win at Winnipeg that equaled the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals at two games each, the Predators never let the Jets get out of the starting block. It used two personnel changes, plus renewed commitments to defense and puck support, to stifle the NHL's second-highest scoring team during the regular season.
With home-ice advantage back in its grasp for Game 5 on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., the Predators will probably stick with the defense-first approach that pushed them into the Stanley Cup Finals last year.
"It was something we really focused on, playing solid defensively," Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said. "That was an amazing team effort. We played a really solid game throughout the 60 minutes and it's obviously a big win for us."
Many Twitter coaches scoffed at Nashville coach Peter Laviolette when he scratched Kevin Fiala, who scored the double-overtime game-winner Sunday night in Game 2, in favor of the older, slower Scott Hartnell. But Hartnell's 98th playoff appearance was a good one, as he gave the Predators a physical presence while neutralizing Winnipeg's top defenseman, Dustin Byfuglien.
Inserting Yannick Weber for Alexei Emelin on the third defense pair with Matt Irwin added some quickness and reduced the Jets' chances of power-play time, as Emelin tends to take penalties.
Nashville used a more conservative forecheck and steered puck-carriers away from the ice's center, forcing Winnipeg to settle for longer shots at times. And when the Jets did produce high-danger chances, Rinne stood tall in his best game of the series with 32 saves.
That included an improbable stop with the knob of his stick, which denied Josh Morrissey the game's first goal about midway through the first period.
Winnipeg center Bryan Little described his team's attempts to attack the Predators' defensive scheme as "skating into a wall." The Jets will have to come up with some adjustments for Game 5.
"When they're defending that well," Winnipeg right winger Patrik Laine said, "we just have to get pucks in deep and get a lot of O-zone time. Just try to shoot a lot and create some loose pucks."
Laine was one of the Jets' few bright spots from Game 4, snapping a six-game scoring drought with his marker in the last minute of the match. Laine could have had a hat trick were it not for two quality saves by Rinne, one late in the first period and another in the third period.
Simply put, the matchup of the league's best regular-season teams has turned into point and counterpoint. Both Jets wins have been answered by Nashville victories, and the teams are now in best-of-three mode.
"We're heading home playing in front of our fans in a big game," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. "We know they are going to get better as the series goes on. This is exactly what the teams expected it to be. Now we got home ice back."