NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Golden Knights have a date for the Western Conference Final.
The Winnipeg Jets advanced to a meeting with the Knights on the strength of a 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night. For the Jets, it’s the first conference final in the 18-year history of the franchise.
Winnipeg will host Game 1 against the Knights at 4 p.m. Saturday at Bell MTS Place.
Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice felt beating the Preds in a winner-take-all game on their home ice was quite an achievement.
“The telling stat for me in this series is we played four games in here and never lost in regulation against the best team in the league,” Maurice said. “That’s what you worry about with a young team. It’s a physical series. We’ve got some skaters.… But that’s a difficult thing to do, to get out on the road … to play well in here as consistently as we did, it’s impressive.”
The Jets won, in part, by chasing Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne — a Vezina Trophy finalist — for the third time in the series. It took just seven shots to force the Predators to call in relief in the first period of the first Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena.
Tyler Myers’ sharp-angle shot from the right-wing boards slithered through Rinne’s pads on the short side 8:41 into thegame, quieting the raucous Nashville crowd.
Rinne’s night was done a little more than two minutes later, after Paul Stastny’s flip shot from once again a sharp angle flewover Rinne’s shoulder.
Rinne played 10:07, the shortest stint for a starting goaltender in a Game 7 in NHL history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Stastny finished with a second goal and an assist. Mark Scheifele also had two goals. Blake Wheeler and rookie Kyle Connoreach had two assists.
Connor Hellebuyck made 36 saves for Winnipeg, which won three of four in Nashville after missing out on the Presidents’ Trophy by three points to the Predators.
“I like it,” Hellebuyck said of advancing to meet the Knights. “I’m excited, and looking forward to it.”
Juuse Saros stopped the first nine shots he saw in relief of Rinne. And after P.K. Subban power-play point blast made it 2-1 late in the first period, it appeared the Predators might be able to make a game of it.
But Nashville couldn’t find the equalizer. And when Scheifele’s one-timer from the left circle made it 3-1 late in the second period, Predators fans seemed to know the end of their team’s best season in history was near.
Rinne took some of the blame. “The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling,” he said of his performance. “You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight. That’s tough to swallow.”
Stastny had a power-play goal in the third, and Scheifele finished off the Preds with an empty-net goal, his leading 11th postseason score.
The Knights were 2-1 against Winnipeg, splitting the two games on the road. The Golden Knights won 5-2 on Nov. 10 at T-Mobile Arena.
Wheeler, the Winnipeg captain, was elated with the victory but showed respect for the Preds.
“It’s too bad one of us had to be knocked off here,” Wheeler said. “But night’s like tonight, you try to really soak it in and enjoy it. And then, wake up and get ready for a big game on Saturday.”