Jets, Golden Knights meet in West final you have to see to believe

Gene Principe previews the upcoming Western Conference Final, with two teams- the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights- both prepped to make history, as neither team has made the Stanley Cup Final for far different reasons.

WINNIPEG – They are the last two cities to be seated at the NHL’s head table. The final pieces of the Original 31.

There was no notion a decade ago that we’d ever see a team rooted in Vegas face one from Winnipeg in a best-of-seven of anything. You could have won a lot of money as recently as a few months ago if you believed that the Golden Knights and Jets would meet for the chance to play for the Stanley Cup right now.

Yet here we are, fresh spring air blowing off the prairies, bracing for something entirely new with this Western Conference final. Everything will stop when they play Game 1 on Saturday night and not just because a huge portion of the population adores its Jets. There’s a sense of occasion building. The feeling you might be witnessing something you tell your kids or your kids’ kids about one day.

“I think we continue to have to shut down streets because fans want to come in and really party with us,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. “That’s a great feeling, being able to see the highlights and just having so many people behind us. It’s pretty exciting.

“It’s a moment that I believe that all of us are going to cherish for the rest of our lives.”

And, perhaps, beyond.

When Winnipeg dispatched Nashville in Game 7 on Thursday night, a man brought an urn with his mother’s ashes to the impromptu street party at Portage and Main. He’s promised to do so again should the Cup ever make a stop at the city’s signature intersection.

The demand for the viewing party outside Bell MTS Place has grown so great that they decided to institute a lottery to distribute 27,000 tickets each for Games 1 and 2. They were given away free of charge to those selected but were immediately fetching as much as $100 apiece on secondary ticket sites.

Some of the 15,000-plus that actually make their way into the building are no doubt borrowing from college funds to do so.

It speaks to the great wait that’s gone on here. First they had to wait for Wayne Gretzky’s greatness to run its course, so often was he the foil to the ambitions of Jets 1.0. Then they had to wait 15 years for the NHL to return after the painful departure in 1996. Then they’ve had to wait another seven years for Jets 2.0 to be sculpted into a championship-calibre outfit.

Now they’re halfway up the mountain and favoured over Vegas in this series.

“It’s exciting for the fans. It’s exciting for the players to be able to give back to the fans,” said general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “But as exciting as it is, I think really the driving force within the group is there’s so much more to give and there’s so much more that the players want to give.”

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It’s amazing to think that one of these organizations is going to play for a championship this spring after never previously having won a playoff game. So much for having to “learn” how to get there.

They established themselves among the NHL’s best in the regular season by embracing an aggressive game built on speed. Winnipeg and Vegas each enter this series having generated more than 60 even-strength shot attempts for per 60 minutes played in the playoffs, which suggests we could be in for some high-event hockey.

“Well, the 109 points tells you how good they were. Specifically, outstanding at transition and speed,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said of the Golden Knights. “How they move the puck from their end in straight lines and make plays off that rush. It’s going to be a very fast, speed-based series.

“There’ll be contact for sure, as always, but that won’t be the story. It’s going to be the team that defends, I think, the best through the neutral zone and attacks simply through the neutral zone that’s going to have the best chance to win.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

It’s going to be either the “Golden Misfits” – as they’ve lovingly dubbed themselves – a team of castoffs that have virtually all played deeper into these playoffs than the organizations that just let them go. (The lone exception is defenceman Nate Schmidt, formerly of the Washington Capitals).

Or it’s going to be the carefully-assembled Jets, who have made eight first-round draft picks since moving north from Atlanta in 2011 and are already using six of those players on a nightly basis.

“For me, they’ve put on a clinic in drafting and developing,” said Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. “And, I guess, along with that great patience and leadership from Mark Chipman as an owner because what they did takes time. It’s easy now for people to see just how good this team is and it’s easy to project that they’re going to be good for a long time. I’m sure that Kevin Cheveldayoff and [assistant GM] Craig Heisinger had nights where they wished it would have happened faster, but I had the benefit last year of probably seeing the Jets 20 times and it was pretty easy to see that it was going to happen.

“This year, certainly it has.”

You just had to see it to believe it.

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