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NASHVILLE — Take a pair of talented teams. Mix in some volatile personalities. Sprinkle in a season-long race for the top. Let simmer. Stir the pot by adding in an emotional seven-game playoff series. Make sure to overheat.
Sit back and savour. You’ve just created a delicious rivalry.
Such is the case for the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, who developed a real distaste for each other last season and renewed acquaintances Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena in the first of four meetings this season.
Don’t think for a second things have gone stale.
“They’re one (of) the better teams in the league and we believe that we’re one of the better teams in the league. That’s usually how rivalries build up. We don’t really like them and they don’t like us,” Jets forward Mathieu Perreault said prior to the game.
Since returning to the NHL in the fall of 2011, local hockey fans have long clamoured for another team to aim their venom at. It was thought that would likely become the Minnesota Wild, given their close proximity. But that has never really materialized, and even last year’s five-game first-round playoff series may not be enough to light the spark.
But there’s no such problem with the Predators. These are two teams in their prime, a pair of heavyweights duking it out for league supremacy. Nashville got the edge in the regular season last year, finishing three points ahead of Winnipeg to claim the Presidents’ Trophy.
They’ve even hung a banner for it at Bridgestone this week, along with somewhat redundant ones declaring them both Central Division champs and Western Conference champs.
Of course, there’s no Stanley Cup banner in sight. The Jets made sure of that by disposing of the Predators in that memorable second-round series.
“Any time you get a prolonged playoff series, there starts to become some animosity. There were some physical games and it was a tight series. We battled them all year long and to go seven, you start to develop that. You definitely need those playoff matchups to really spark it and take it to the next level,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said.
“Last year, we were fighting with them all year long to try and become the best team in the Central Division. I don’t think it’s any different this year. If you look at Nashville, you want to knock them off.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said the recipe for this rivalry is pretty simple.
“Both teams have very similar styles, maybe different systems, but similar styles. They both play the same way. And they’ve never been short on storylines. Big leads, big leads lost, lots of action at both ends, lots of hitting. If you’re turning on a game to watch, these are the games I enjoy watching and being a part of. There’s lots of emotion there. And getting to a playoff series with both teams will certainly increase that,” Maurice said.
Games against Nashville are always “really physical and heavy,” and take a toll on all combatants, he said. Many pundits believed the Jets simply ran out of gas after beating the Predators last year and having to quickly begin the Western Conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights just days later.
Defenceman Joe Morrow said the Jets learned plenty about themselves last year in how they gutted through the Nashville series and persevered, including winning three games at Bridgestone.
“When big challenges arise is when the most successful teams come to play. I think we’ve shown that in the past, that we can battle through this and play a consistent game and be neck-and-neck with this team and make things pretty exciting,” he said.
“I think just bringing a consistent effort and knowing what’s ahead of you, just kind of the familiarity that this team has with playing against the Predators and playing in tough buildings, is kind of what you try to thrive off. Coming on the road and getting victories is not easy. The fans in hockey are really what make it very difficult to come in and play in buildings. And these fans are pretty crazy, they’re loud and they’re excited to be here. I think our team does a good job of weathering that and being able to deal with that adversity and coming out and playing a pretty emotional game on our side, too.”
Jets centre Mark Scheifele said a new season brings a whole new set of challenges, and last year’s success against Nashville doesn’t guarantee anything going forward.
“There’s obviously a different magnitude on things. But it’s always fun playing Nashville. It’s always fun playing in Nashville,” said Scheifele, who has a running feud with Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban.
“I’ve had a lot of memorable games in this building. The crowd’s always awesome. Nashville is a great team. From the goaltender out, they’re solid through and through. For us, it’s a fun place to play. When you’re playing against a team that plays similar to you and we have tight games against, there’s always going to be that rivalry. It’s always fun hockey playing against the Predators.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.