By Kristi Loucks (Originally published on The4thLinePodcast.com)
The Winnipeg Jets had the Nashville Predators on the ropes, but last year’s runner up was able to dig deep and force a Game 7. While a Game 7 win is energizing on its own, Game 1 on Saturday could be a rude awakening for the Jets as the Vegas Golden Knights have been kicking back since last Sunday.
The question is, will the advantage be to the fresh team or the one riding a wave of adrenaline to kick off the series.
The Ride So Far
These two teams both came into the season with something in common, no one was really sure they’d be here in mid-April, let alone May. Yet here they are ready to go head-to-head for the right to play in the Stanley Cup Final and extend their season into June.
The Golden Knights had a storybook season that started on a roll and weathered many storms with five different goalies making appearances in Marc-Andre Fleury’s stead (due to an early injury). For many teams that would have been an excuse for the wheels to come off the cart (I’m looking at you Chicago), but Vegas just shrugged it off and carried on with Maxim Lagace (14 games) and Malcom Subban (19 games) picking up most of the starts while Fleury was sidelined. In the end, perhaps that was the key for Vegas who entered the postseason with a fresh and healthy Fleury, and he came ready to play.
The Golden Knights came up against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and promptly swept them right back out as if it was a scrimmage and the Kings were a men’s league team. There were a few scrums and Drew Doughty got sent to his room by the Department of Player Safety at one point. In hindsight, it’s possible the scrums were the Knights checking pulses in the corner, because the Kings of old did not show up.
In the second round, the Golden Knights stuck a toe in shark infested waters against San Jose who looked sharp in their first round series against the hamstrung Anaheim Ducks. The Sharks dispatched the Ducks in four games with ease, and Game 1 in Vegas (7-0 VGK) made it clear that the Sharks victories were more about the Ducks poor play and less about their own dominance.
The Sharks put up enough of a fight to force six games, but they also gave up two shutouts including the thrashing in Game 1 that set the tone for the series.
The Golden Knights had four days to scout their next opponent as the Jets and Preds continued to battle it out. They also had the advantage of being able to rest any injuries that might have come about in the earlier rounds. Vegas will be looking to come out strong as they’ll kick off in enemy territory on Saturday.
Refueling and Ready
The Jets had a bit of a harder path to get to the Western Conference Final.
They started off against the Minnesota Wild, a team that was decimated by injuries (again) heading into the postseason without Ryan Suter, and losing Zach Parise to a fractured sternum in Game 3. The Wild quite simply brought toy darts to a shooting range. They went down in five games.
The hard part came when the Jets found the Predators on their dance card after their battle with the injury riddled Colorado Avalanche (who put up a valiant fight and stretched the series to six games).
The Jets and Predators gave us a series that wound up being one of the more exciting of this postseason thus far as no team managed to string together a pair of wins and Winnipeg stole three on the Predators home ice. Twice the Jets left Preds fans stunned with a pair of dominant victories (4-1 in Game 1, 6-2 in Game 5) and then closed out the series in Smashville with a 5-1 victory that ended the Predators chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Final to re-write last years ending.
Connor Hellebuyck and Paul Stastny (acquired at the trade deadline from the St. Louis Blues) stole the show. Stastny picked up two goals and an assist and Hellebuyck was near perfect stopping 36 of 37 shots. The series highlighted Hellebuyck’s outstanding goaltending, Dustin Byfuglien’s bruising hits (20) and offensive flash (4G, 3A), and Mark Scheifele’s timely scoring (5G, 4A).
The Jets didn’t have an easy road, but they found ways to get pucks behind Pekka Rinne who was pulled after letting in two goals on seven shots at just 10:31 in the first. Incidentally, it was the fastest a goalie has been yanked in the 171 Game 7’s contested in the NHL’s playoff history. Not exactly a milestone a goalie wants his name attached to for all of eternity, especially on the back of a loss. It was also the second time Rinne surrendered his crease in the series and the third this postseason.
If the Jets have any hope of beating the house in Las Vegas, the Jets are going to have to find a way to do the same thing to Fleury early and often.
History Will Be Made
Given the way these two teams have been playing, the winner of the Stanley Cup very well may be the team that rises from this showdown. And this series will offer all the historic storylines that the NHL loves to sell.
The Jets (post-Atlanta Thrashers) have never made it to a Conference Final.
And Vegas, well just about everything they’ve done has been historic, and every game they play in this postseason is a first in their inaugural season.
Isle of the Misfit Toys
The Golden Knights have been surprising everyone all season long playing with a chip on their collective shoulders as a group of players deemed expendable in the expansion draft. In fact, there is probably only one player on the Golden Knights who was thrilled to be exposed in that draft, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury had lost his starting job with the Pittsburgh Penguins over the last two seasons to Matt Murray, and like everything Fleury does, he accepted it with grace. So, when an opportunity arose to command the crease for the expansion Golden Knights, he viewed it as a chance to resurrect an already stellar career with the Stanley Cup bearing his name three times (2009, 2016, and 2017).
Fleury’s legacy was already etched on all the hardware he dreamed about as a child, but this season might just wind up being the one he is most proud of when all is said and done. No matter the outcome (though it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t mind finding out how Vegas throws a parade). Fleury has pitched four shutouts in ten appearances making him a formidable challenge for any team. The Golden Knights have played every game like a team with nothing to lose, because the expectations were always low as the new kids on the block.
The Jets are perhaps in a similar boat simply because they’ve spent the better part of their existence (Post-Atlanta) outside of the playoff race. However, this season they came out of the gates looking like a team on the verge of changing that narrative, and they never looked back.
Keys to the Western Conference Final
With the teams being in different divisions, the Golden Knights and the Jets met only three times during the regular season with Vegas taking the season series two games to one.
11/10/17 – @VGK 5 – 2 WPG
12/01/17 – @WPG 7 – 4 VGK
02/01/18 – VGK 3 – 2 @WPG (OT)
The Knights will have the daunting task of silencing the Winnipeg White Out as home ice goes to the Jets with 114 points to Vegas’ 109.
If the Golden Knights want to stay at the high rollers table, they’re going to have to find a way to neutralize the Jets explosive blueline and high octane scoring talent up front, They’ll also have to put a lot of pucks on Hellebuyck and find ways to draw penalties. The Knights have scored seven powerplay goals in ten games, and the Jets are a team known to spend a bit of time in the sin bin.
To this point, Fleury has been spectacular, but Hellebuyck has been as well, so this series very well could be won or lost on team discipline and penalty kills.
Of all the remaining teams, the Knights have scored the fewest goals (29), so they will have to find a way to amp up their production while limiting the well stocked arsenal of the Jets. This is by far the stiffest challenge the Golden Knights have faced.
On the other side of that equation, the Golden Knights have given up the fewest goals (22) by a strong margin, so goals of the greasy variety are going to be a must for Winnipeg.
For the Jets to get to the Stanley Cup Final, they’re going to need to spend a lot of time all up in Fleury’s gear. They’ll have to hover in his line of sight, and go after any rebound he coughs up, because Fleury isn’t likely to give up much that he can see straight up unless it’s an absolute bomb. In addition, they’re going to need more from young stars Nikolaj Ehlers (6 A through 11 games) and Patrik Laine (3 G, 7 A through 12 games).
The Jets should be well accustomed to the grind of the postseason after their series with the Predators, will that be enough to stall the Golden Knights run at history? You can bet the Jets will be hoping to put up a pair of W’s in front of their fans at home, because in Vegas, the house has won every game except one. That one took a pair of extra frames to decide.
For their part, the Knights will be looking to prove that they can battle with the heavyweights in these playoffs. This one just might take seven to decide.
With Fleury and Hellebuyck playing some of their best hockey, this very well could be a goalie duel for the ages, but keep an eye on Scheifele (14 pts), Byfuglien (12 pts), and Laine (looking to break loose with just 3 G so far) for the Jets. For Vegas, look for Jon Marchessault (11 pts), Reilly Smith (11 pts), and William Karlsson (10 pts) to continue producing at a high level.
Is it time to go all in on Vegas, or do the Jets have enough fuel to land in the Stanley Cup Final?