All was quiet in Bridgestone Arena as the Winnipeg Jets demolished the Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Final. However, Winnipeg, a town that lives for hockey, has a lot to celebrate as the team’s first playoff win in history keeps snowballing towards success. Don’t set up the parade route yet Winnipeg because you’re about to meet another Cinderella-story in the Western Conference Final. The Vegas Golden Knights.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets: Western Conference Final Preview
There’s no question that these teams aren’t in the Conference Final without their goaltenders. Marc-Andre Fleury is a playoff pro, winning three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Canadian-born netminder has 12 postseason runs under his belt throughout his 14-season career. This season he’s posting his best playoff numbers yet with a 1.53 goals against average and .951 save percentage. His saves have been timely and even acrobatic, mixing some juggling catches into his display of mastery. His Stanley Cup experience and competitive nature give Fleury the ability to have some fun with each series. He’s not on a mission to prove himself, he did that long ago.
On the other end of the ice will be Connor Hellebuyck. The 24-year-old is a candidate for the Vezina Trophy after a stellar regular season with the Jets. Hellebuyck hit some snags in his first season as a number one NHL goaltender in 2016-17. However, in early October he snagged Steve Mason‘s job and that was that. He ended this regular season with a 2.36 goals against avearge and .924 save percentage. The Michigan-born goaltender also earned six shutouts between the pipes in a league-high 44 wins. His workload was nothing to sneeze at too. Hellebuyck faced a whopping 2,048 shots while earning his regular season accolades, the third-most of any goalie. While his playoff numbers aren’t as stellar as Fleury’s, 2.25 GAA and .927 save percentage, Hellebuyck is proving himself more than trustworthy in the crease.
Lack of Experience Brings Home-Ice Advantage
Postseason experience is a large factor as playoffs continue. However, these teams are unique because neither of them has much playoff experience outside of this year. The Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers, have made the playoffs before but never won a game. The Golden Knights didn’t exist until their expansion draft last summer. The Knights inaugural success is nothing short of inexplicable but it’s unclear if this vagabond crew will continue to shatter expectations. Both cities have rallied around their teams for both of their historical runs, making home-ice extremely dangerous for the visiting opponent.
Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Place is a full white-out since the start of playoffs. The T-Mobile arena is a full Vegas spectacle. From a literal Knight that starts each series by “slaying” their opponent to deafening cries in Winnipeg, both arenas have been fully-immersive fan experiences. The difficulty of these buildings will be huge, which may ultimately contribute to the likelihood of a seven-game series.
So why is Vegas a true contender in this fight? Their draft strategy miraculously worked. George McPhee and Gerard Gallant had a plan during June 22nd’s expansion draft. They just didn’t know it would work quite so well. By picking a franchise goaltender, they knew their team would be watchable. Next up, they limited their undesirable contracts of old players with big names. Finally, it was always going to be about speed. Strictly physical hockey is over, it’s about finesse and speed, ala Connor McDavid.
With heavyweights like James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault up front, they had proven legs. It was the addition of cheap yet studly forwards like William Karlsson, Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin and Oscar Lindberg to name a few that keeps this team fast as hell. Karlsson had an incredible year. After bouncing from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Anaheim Ducks and back to Columbus, Karlsson seemed destined for mediocrity. Enter Vegas. Karlsson had 43 goals and 35 assists in the 2017-18 regular season. Take that compared to six goals his previous season in Columbus. Do you believe in magic? The #VegasBorn sure do. Taking a gamble on these young guns in sin city sure paid off, at least for now.
Winnipeg is no chump in this race either though. They were the second-best team in the league with 114 points, behind the Predators. After besting the President’s Trophy winners in seven gritty games, it’s clear whom they’re showing the longevity that it takes to hoist a cup. In fact, they might have even more of a chip on their shoulder than Vegas. Winnipeg has been in circulation for seven seasons with little success to show for it. The drafting of Patrik Laine and the captaincy change to Blake Wheeler have been huge shifts for the team. Laine and Wheeler led the team in points with 70 and 91 respectively. However, Winnipeg’s depth is a big advantage this postseason.
Beyond Laine and Wheeler, Mark Schiefele and Paul Stasny have been extremely productive. Stasny earned a whopping 10 points throughout the Nashville series, including two goals and an assist in Game 7. Schiefele also netted two goals on the night. They’re in a similar boat to the Tampa Bay Lightning in that they can count on a variety of players to make a difference night-after-night.
Both of these teams have a great chance of earning the Cup and the series will be thrilling no doubt. The Jet’s take the cake when it comes to depth but Vegas certainly has the advantage between the pipes. It’s a tough one to call but the final prediction here is Jets in seven.