How did we get here?
In one corner, we have the Winnipeg Jets, a team whose promise you could see coming for a few years, but frustratingly never broke through. In their first playoff appearance since coming to Manitoba, they were swept aside by the more experienced Anaheim Ducks, and regressed the year after. After last year’s goaltending problems and that Steve Mason was the only player added to that position in the off-season, it was starting to become a wonder if this team would ever figure it out.
And then, almost overnight, they became one of the best and more well-rounded teams in the NHL. Connor Hellebuyck shocked everyone by not just solidifying the concerns in net, but by playing so well he earned a spot as a Vezina Trophy finalist. Blake Wheeler morphed into one of the best captains and power forwards in the game today, Mark Scheifele continued his trajectory to superstardom. Patrik Laine, Nik Ehlers are huge threats, and if this team didn’t have enough weapons already up front, rookie Kyle Connor scored 31. And we haven’t even gotten to the defence yet, a mix of big and small, strong and slippery, offensive- and defensive-minded. Because of everything else about this team, it’s been one of the more underrated blue lines in the league. No more.
And the Vegas Golden Knights are this unfathomable collection of misfits and cast-offs that everyone has been waiting to drop off since they won their first game 2-1 in Dallas. But it never happened. The wire-to-wire leaders of the Pacific Division have been Exhibit A that speed is the great equalizer in the NHL today, and if you have plenty of that — and maybe a chip on your shoulder as well — anything is possible.
From William Karlsson’s 43-goal season to Deryk Engelland’s responsible minutes and leadership, to the collection of four goalies who had to fill in for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury early this season, Vegas could do no wrong. Long ago — we’re talking February — they became the best expansion team in North American pro sports history and it’s crazy they’re now just eight wins away from winning the Stanley Cup in Year 1. The city has embraced the game and the team — and why not? The Golden Knights aren’t only a Cinderella story, they’re an incredibly exciting team to watch. Write them off at your own peril.
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Winnipeg: 51.42 CF% (10th), 54.6 GF% (4th), .925 SP% (13th), 8.56 SH% (5th), 101.04 PDO (8th)
Vegas: 50.96 CF% (12th), 52.78 GF% (9th), .922 SP% (17th), 8.38 SH% (6th), 100.57 PDO (10th)
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.
|TEAM||OFFENCE (rank)||DEFENCE (rank)||POWER NUMBER (rank)|
|Vegas||5.21 (16th)||5.61 (11th)||5.41 (12th)|
|Winnipeg||6.00 (9th)||6.02 (6th)||6.01 (7th)|
Winnipeg: 23.4 PP% (5th), 81.8 PK% (9th), 273 GF (2nd), 216 GA (5th)
Vegas: 21.4 PP% (11th), 81.4 PK% (12th), 268 GF (5th), 225 GA (8th)
Playoff Strengths for Winnipeg: There hasn’t really been a weakness to exploit on this Jets team so far. Certainly Hellebuyck’s goaltending has been an important factor in getting the Jets this far, and the pick up of Paul Stastny at the deadline fully formed a dangerous forward unit, but focus always goes back to the top line, led by Scheifele.
Three years ago, Scheifele registered just one assist in the four-game sweep by the Ducks, but he’s grown so much as a player since then. Now one of the top centres in the game, Scheifele has been a regular-season monster for two years now and isn’t shrivelling on the biggest stage. The leading scorer on the Jets and a true student of the game, Scheifele especially shone against Nashville, especially on the road in loud Bridgestone Arena, torching the Predators with seven goals away from home. Much has been made all year about Vegas’s home-ice advantage, but with Scheifele, the Jets are setting out to put that to bed.
Playoff Strengths for Vegas: Speed. Speed. Speed. The Golden Knights are here because, sure, some of their players are having career years (Karlsson), but also because GM George McPhee and his staff did a great job finding value and skill where other GMs didn’t. The top line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Karlsson has been nearly unstoppable and could very well be the best trio left standing. They are the top three scorers on the Golden Knights this post-season, and coach Gerard Gallant does not shy away from playing them against the opposition’s best.
But not enough can be said about Fleury, whose .951 save percentage, 1.53 GAA and four shutouts are easily better than any of the other three goaltenders still around. It was a foregone conclusion that he was the goalie Pittsburgh would let go of in the expansion draft last summer, but today some Pens fans wonder if that call should have been so easy. Early in his career, there was a question if Fleury was a big-game goalie, but as he’s added age and experience, he’s proven to be just that. This playoff journey may be the best run of the multi-Cup winner’s career and if Vegas does the unthinkable and wins it all, he right now would be the favourite to win the Conn Smythe. Incredible.
Winnipeg’s X-Factor: We’d bet on this being an exciting back-and-forth, high-paced series, which means the goalies will be front and centre. Most of Winnipeg’s offensive stars have shown up through two rounds, but while Laine certainly hasn’t been invisible, he’s not scoring at the rate we’re used to. He’s put 40 shots on net these playoffs, but has just three goals to show for it and a 7.5 shooting percentage that is well behind his career average of 18. It’s just a matter of time before he gets going and if he does it against Vegas, the results could be devastating for the Golden Knights.
Vegas’s X-Factor: While Vegas’s strength is its speed and transition game — and of course Fleury — that means its games turn into track meets often. To this point that hasn’t been a problem and Fleury has been stellar, but the Golden Knights’ average of 34.4 shots against per game these playoffs is more than three shots higher than any of the other semifinalists. Now, if Fleury continues to play this well all bets are off, but allowing the Jets that many opportunities in a seven-game series could spell trouble — in the two wins Vegas earned against Winnipeg this year, the Golden Knights held them to under 30 shots. Vegas isn’t going to change its plan of attack now, and it’s getting really difficult to underrate these guys. While a run-and-gun series against the Jets would make for some excellent watching, it might not be the way to topple the White Out.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Winnipeg: Mark Scheifele (11-5-16), Blake Wheeler (3-12-15), Paul Stastny (6-8-14)
Vegas: Jonathan Marchessault (4-7-11), Reilly Smith (1-10-11), William Karlsson (4-6-10)