In May 2016, the Winnipeg Jets had recently wrapped their worst season since the franchise had moved north of the border in 2011 and were eagerly anticipating their upcoming No. 2 draft pick. A year later, that pick’s electric rookie season was only enough to push the Jets to ninth place in the Western Conference, and they weren’t expected to make any noise in 2017–18.
In May 2016, the Vegas Golden Knights were little more than a twinkle in the enterprising eye of Bill Foley. The team had no management, no coaches, no players, and not even approval from the league until late June. After the expansion draft last summer, few expected the ragtag army of Knights to make any noise in year one—they had the worst preseason odds to win the Cup, according to any betting site worth its salt.
And yet in May 2018, here they are: the Knights have stormed the playoff castle, obliterating record after record along the way, while the high-powered Jets have officially reached cruising altitude, knocking the Presidents’ Trophy winners from the second round in seven games. They’re the last teams left in the West, and in a few short weeks, one of them will have a legitimate chance to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in what will be the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance. Here’s everything you need to know before the puck drops on Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
How They Got Here
The Golden Knights handled two Pacific Division playoff stalwarts rather easily to get to this point. They held the Kings to just three goals in four games, becoming the first expansion team to record a playoff sweep in its inaugural season. Then they bookended a six-game series win over the Sharks with Marc-Andre Fleury shutouts, bringing the former Penguins netminder’s total this playoffs to four.
The Jets had one poor game in the first round, but otherwise took care of the Wild with ease, posting shutouts in Games 4 and 5 to clinch. Their second round-tango with the top-seeded Predators, a battle of the league’s top point-getters in the regular season, went the distance, with all but two of the games decided by at least three goals. Winnipeg prevailed with a decisive 5–1 Game 7 win in Nashville just a few days after they were beaten handily themselves with a chance to wrap the series up at home.
Vegas’s top line features three guys who had bounced around a bit before landing with the Knights, but they have jelled to make for an extrexemly effective group: Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith are all multi-faceted players that can win battles and score goals. They all have at least 10 points through Vegas’s first ten playoff games, and two of Karlsson’s four goals are game-winners.
There are plenty of other weapons for impending Jack Adams Award winner Gerard Gallant to employ. Start with proven playoff performer James Neal; add in Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, two former members of the Wild who have proven themselves in Sin City; and round it off with a physical and effective fourth line spearheaded by Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare that has defended extremely well against opponents’ top lines.
The Jets attack that combined to score the second-most goals in the regular season has kept at it in the last month, producing the best goals per game average in the playoffs through two rounds (3.58, tied with the Capitals). Their top six is as dangerous as you’ll find: everyone around the league has heard of Patrik Laine (who Winnipeg selected with that No. 2 pick two summers ago) for his Alex Ovechkin–esque goal totals, but Laine sits just fifth on his team in points. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are a fantastic pair, and trade deadline pickup Paul Stastny has been a huge addition for the second line and the first power play unit.
There could be some depth questions, as the Jets have missed Joel Armia and Mathieu Perreault, both third-line staples along with Winnipeg/Atlanta veteran Bryan Little, due to injury. Vegas is very fast and probably more physical, but in terms of pure scoring ability, Winnipeg has the edge.
Much has been made of how the Lightning have three borderline No. 1 defensemen. Vegas doesn’t have an established No. 1 but makes up for that with a handful of guys that hope to eventually become one. Nate Schmidt has stood out on both ends of the ice; Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller are all excellent puck-handlers that can shoot and—critically for this offense—move the puck in transition. Veterans like de facto captain Deryk Engelland and Luca Sbisa add a good balance to the blue line.
It might seem like a strange mix of players (lest we forget how the team was constructed), but don’t forget that the Knights can defend: they’ve conceded only 17 goals through 10 games, which is fewer than five teams that lost in the first round conceded.
Dustin Byfuglien was a crucial part of the early stages of the Blackhawks’ dynasty as a forward, and he’s become an imposing two-way threat for the Jets back on defense. Jacob Trouba looks like the star he was expected to be a few years ago, while former Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers is another imposing presence on a loaded right side of the blue line.
The left side has fluctuated a little more, with Tobias Enstrom, another Atlanta veteran, recently slotting back in. Josh Morrissey, who can both create and block shots, and Ben Chiarot are in the mix as well. This is a pretty even battle, but the edge might just go to Vegas, though that probably has more to do with the category coming up next.
ADVANTAGE: Golden Knights
It seems foolish to suggest that the team that doesn’t have a Vezina Trophy finalist this year has the better goaltender in this series, but that’s what we’re suggesting. Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck has been terrific in his first playoffs—he was pulled in Winnipeg’s Game 3 loss to Minnesota, but he has been fabulous otherwise.
But the man in the mask on the other end has been the story of these playoffs. When Vegas selected Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in last summer’s expansion draft, they knew they were getting a charismatic netminder with all kinds of playoff experience that had been forced out by a younger option that had just backstopped a Cup run in Pittsburgh. They didn’t know they were getting a guy who would sport a goals against average of 1.53 and stop 95% of the shots put on him through 10 playoff games. Simply put, Fleury has been amazing.
ADVANTAGE: Golden Knights
Vegas wins if...
It continues its remarkable team defense and constricts the dynamic Winnipeg offense. The Golden Knights are fast and physical, defend extremely well and have a talented goaltender on an incredible hot streak. Vegas would like nothing more than to outwork and outhustle Winnipeg, win the neutral zone and score timely goals to win another series.
Winnipeg wins if...
It can match Vegas’s physicality. Playing the run-and-gun, high-octane style Winnipeg prefers ought to result in a couple of wins, but it won’t secure them the series. Does Winnipeg have a counter to Vegas’s fourth line? Can the Jets win the neutral zone? Hellebuyck has been good, but he and the defense in front of him will have to be great.
No one expected Vegas to be any good this season. Once they were, no one expected them to contend for the playoffs. Once they did, no one expected them to win the division. Once they did, people finally started to take note. At this point, nothing is surprising anymore. The Golden Knights are good.
Vegas in 6.