After having a run-in with the goaltender who did nothing but help the Predators advance to last year’s Cup Final in the first round this year—and the Hamburglar after an injury to Bernier—the Preds will face a whole different animal this series.
The Predators may have a Vezina finalist in net, but so do the Jets. Connor Hellebuyck has put together one hell of a season. In his 64 starts, Hellebuyck went 44-11-9, with 6 of those wins coming in the form of a shutout.
Hellebuyck’s .924 save percentage in the playoffs thus far is identical to his regular season SV%, but his 1.94 goals allowed average is better than his 2.36 regular season GAA. He has followed up a 6-goal performance by posting back-to-back shutouts in games 4 and 5 to secure the Jets a spot in the second round.
Despite the impressive numbers, Hellebuyck is beatable. Take the February 27th loss the Jets had in Winnipeg. As the graphic below shows, the Preds put up shots from all over the ice, leading to an onslaught of 6 goals. Smith scored twice from the right faceoff circle, Johansen and Turris scored from the other, Mattias Ekholm scored near the blue line on a power play and Ryan Hartman scored a point-blank game-winner.
Four of the Preds’ six goals are fun to watch, but there is not much on the tape that the team needs to dive into. Turris’ goal and one of Smith’s goals came off of rebounds. Smith’s second goal was an unstoppable shot. Johansen found Hellebuyck’s five hole when he probably shouldn’t have. The two most important goals for the Nashville Predators to look at heading into the series are Hartman’s and Ekholm’s.
Ekholm scored a goal on the power play, and we know there will be penalties in a playoff series between these two (see also: Preds and Jets fill penalty boxes). Firstly, the goal came from good vertical movement from Nashville’s power play. Josi takes the puck from his own blue line and skates down to the corner of the goal line. After drawing three of the four Jets penalty killers towards him, Josi passes the puck backwards to Jarnkrok, who draws the penalty killers to him before passing diagonally to a charging Ekholm. While Ekholm gathers the puck, Hartnell sets up in front of Hellebuyck, screening him from Ekholm’s shot, which finds its way to the back of the net.
While Hartman’s goal isn’t as intense of a play as the Ekholm goal, it’s something the Predators need to perfect again as the playoffs continue. Hartman, after missing his first shot, sets himself up perfectly next to Hellebuyck, allowing him to redirect a Josi shot into the net for the game-winner.
The Preds can definitely score off of centering passes and point-blank shots, but they’re going to have to use other strategies to consistently get past Hellebuyck. If the Preds want another option, they can do what the Wild did in Game 3’s 6-2 onslaught or their own 6-5 victory: set up screens in front of Hellebuyck and fire at the net. The Wild and Preds scored most of their goals in those games off of either screened shots, rebounds, and redirects. If Nashville can put quality shots on Hellebuyck, they can find a way to put enough of them over the line.
While the Predators are perfectly capable of scoring on Winnipeg when Hellebuyck is in net, they need to be prepared to have shots saved that might have gone in on other goalies. When those shots don’t go in, the last thing that the Preds need to do is get off their game. If they play their game and force Winnipeg to do so, shots will get through and they can control this series as much as possible.
If the Preds can chase Hellebuyck, the likely next in line is the 29-year-old Mason. In 12 starts this season, Mason allowed 37 goals on 392 shots. His 3.24 GAA and .906 SV% are nothing to be gawking at, and he can definitely be solved, even if he played a perfect period in relief of Hellebuyck during the 6-2 Game 3 loss.
In the same way that Nashville scored 6 goals on Hellebuyck on February 27th, Calgary put up 6 on Mason in October, and while that was early in the season, he never really settled in.
Mason went 5-6-1 in his starts this season, allowing less than 4 goals in 6 of the 12 starts, going 3-2-1 in those games. In the other 6 games, Mason allowed 4+ goals, going 2-4-0.
If the Preds can chase Hellebuyck AND Mason, the next in line is likely to be 28-year-old Michael Hutchinson. Hutchinson has only played in 3 games this season, going 2-1-0. That one loss, however, came at the hands of the Nashville Predators on March 13th at Bridgestone Arena.
As the graphic below shows, the Preds put up shots from all over the ice, leading to goals. Fiala scored on a rush off of a beautiful centering pass from Josi, noted-goal scorer Austin Watson found twine top-shelf from point-blank range shorthanded, and Jared Stillman’s favorite Pred, Viktor Arvidsson, did the same.
For as much fun as it would be to watch a similar outcome, I’m not the kind of person that wishes an injury on a player, let alone two. And injuries are honestly the only way we’ll see Michael Hutchinson play extensive minutes this series.
The Jets have a top 5 starting NHL goaltender right now, but the other two goalies are nothing to be afraid of for an entire series. And if the Preds that suited up for Game 6 show up in this series, Hellebuyck will be solvable. Watching the duel between Rinne and Hellebuyck will be a ton of fun this series, hopefully Rinne can come out on top.