Just ponder this for a minute. Imagine this time last year even contemplating the possibility that the Vegas Golden Knights and the Winnipeg Jets would be meeting in the Western Conference final in 2018. The Jets were coming off a non-playoff season and the Knights, for all intents and purposes, didn’t even exist. But here we are, with the two most intriguing and exciting teams in the NHL playing for a chance to be in the Stanley Cup final. Both teams are entering uncharted territory and both have advanced further into the playoffs than anyone would have expected. They’re both fast, dynamic teams that are well put together, very well coached and have a ton of players who can be difference makers. It should be fun.
Why The Golden Knights Win
Because they play the same way regardless of the opponent. They play the same way regardless of whether they’re ahead or behind. They play the same way whether it’s a nothing game in February or overtime in a playoff game. The Golden Knights never, ever deviate from their game, which is based on speed, puck pressure and a constant forecheck. It has worked so far for them and, most surprisingly, they’ve had two relatively easy series. The rest they gained between both rounds should serve them very well as the battle of playoff attrition really begins. The Golden Knights have one of the most dynamic lines in hockey at the moment and they can play four lines, each of which has the complete trust of the coach. Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed 17 goals in 10 games, for goodness sake, and has emerged as a legitimate Conn Smythe contender at the age of 33. If there is a significant hole in this lineup, there has not been an opponent, either in the regular season or the playoffs, who has found a way to exploit it yet. The Golden Knights’ top post-season scorer sits in 19th place going into the conference final, but they haven’t required a bushel of goals because they’ve been getting such superior goaltending and have cashed in on their chances.
Why The Jets Win
Well, how about the fact that they defeated the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners for starters? A franchise that had never, ever won a single game in the second round of the playoffs has a dazzling array of offensive weapons, led by Conn Smythe frontrunner Mark Scheifele, who almost singlehandedly buried the Nashville Predators in the second round. The Jets have scored exactly the same number of goals (43) as the high-flying Washington Capitals in exactly the same number of games (12) and they managed to make one of the deepest and most highly regarded defense corps look ordinary in Round 2. Speaking of defense, their blueline is rapidly becoming one of the best in the NHL, led by Dustin Byfuglien, who has the ability to take games over all by himself. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck has had his moments when he has struggled in the playoffs, but manages to be there when his team needs him most. The Jets are strong down the middle, have a lethal power play and a quick-strike ability that has the potential to bury teams. Just ask the Predators. Scheifele leads all players still in the playoffs in both goals and points and with Paul Stastny proving every bit worth what the Jets gave up for him at the trade deadline, they have a very dangerous 1-2 punch.
Five Things To Watch
1. Fleury is the oldest goalie remaining in the playoffs by a wide margin. Can he keep up his ridiculously high level of play against a team that will test him early and often. The rest between rounds will certainly help.
2. Speed. The Golden Knights play with a ton of it and have been able to capitalize on two bigger, slower opponents. The Jets have the size advantage over the Golden Knights and they will be significantly faster than either the Los Angeles Kings or Predators were.
3. Offense. The Golden Knights barely scored in the first round and didn’t exactly light things up against the Sharks. In fact, they only have 11 goals on the road in five games. Will they be able to keep up to the high-octane Jets?
4. The bottom six. Vegas has a size and physical advantage on its third and fourth lines, but the Jets have much more offensive talent. If the depth of both teams is tested during the series, it will be interesting to see which wins out.
5. Special teams. The Jets have been terrific on the power play and only middling killing penalties, while Vegas has been the reverse. Something has to give here.
THN Series Prediction: Jets in seven.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES: