A Western Conference final featuring the Winnipeg Jets and the expansion Vegas Golden Knights isn’t quite what the experts predicted at the start of training camp, but both teams are full value for their incredible runs through the regular season and playoffs.
The Canadian Press breaks down some of what to look for when the series gets going Saturday night at Bell MTS Place.
Winnipeg’s deep unit up front is led my Mark Scheifele, who tops the playoff goal race with 11. His seven road goals against the Predators set a new NHL record for the most in a series, and his 16 points gives him the lead among players still active in the playoffs. Blake Wheeler compliments the big centre on the Jets’ No. 1 line with great vision to pace all remaining post-season players with 12 assists, while rookie Kyle Connor scored 31 goals in the regular season. Paul Stastny, a trade deadline acquisition from St. Louis, had five goals and five assists against Nashville, and provides stability and poise on a second line with young wingers Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Vegas also got it done with contributions across the board this season. Like the Jets, the Knights had five players with at least 20 goals. William Karlsson came out of nowhere to score 43 times in the regular season, flanked on a top line that features a pair of former Florida Panthers in Jonathan Marchessault, who leads Vegas in playoff scoring with 11 points, and Reilly Smith. Eric Haula was also a big surprise with his 29 goals this season, while James Neal has been through a number of playoff battles and provides grit and skill up front. Third-line winger Alex Tuch is tied with Karlsson and Marchessault for the Knights’ lead with four goals in these playoffs.
The Predators’ high-profile blue line grabbed a lot of the attention ahead of the series with Winnipeg, but it was the Jets’ defence corps that came out on top. Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba make up a reliable, if not flashy No. 1 pair, while the six-foot-five, 260-pound Dustin Byfuglien is a threat to defend, score and knock an opponent out of his skates with a big hit. The 33-year-old leads all defenceman still playing in the playoffs with four goals and nine assists. Tyler Myers has three goals in the post-season, including the opener in Winnipeg’s victory in Game 7 against the Predators.
Nate Schmidt leads a solid defence in Vegas after posting five goals and 31 assists in regular season. Brayden McNabb makes up the other half of the No. 1 pair, while the smooth-skating Shea Theodore lines up alongside the veteran presence of Deryk Engelland. Schmidt and Theodore have two goals and three assists through two rounds of the playoffs. Luca Sbisa and Colin Miller make up the third pair.
Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck has a .927 save percentage in the playoffs, capping his first two rounds with a 36-save shutout in Game 7 against Nashville. The 24-year-old showed maturity beyond his years, outduelling fellow Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne of the Predators. Hellebuyck didn’t even begin the season as Winnipeg’s starter, but like the rest of his young team, he figured things out in the regular season before going a step further in the playoffs.
Along with Karlsson, Marc-Andre Fleury is the poster boy for the Knights’ incredible run in their first season. Left unprotected by the Penguins in the expansion draft because of Matt Murray’s rise in Pittsburgh, the 33-year-old has been lights out for his new team. He has .951 save percentage to go along with an eye-popping four shutouts in the post season. Fleury, whose playoff performances have run the gauntlet from exceptional to spotty during his career, provides a steady, veteran presence in the crease. A three-time Stanley Cup champion, he knows what it takes at this time of year.
In his fourth full season in charge, Paul Maurice has been instrumental in the Jets’ surge. After missing the playoffs the last two years, Maurice guided Winnipeg to a 27-point improvement as the Jets finished second in the regular-season standings behind Nashville. The Jets disposed of the Minnesota Wild in five games in the first round before coming out on top in the slugfest against the Predators. Winnipeg won three of four on the road against Nashville — the only loss in Music City came in double overtime in Game 2 — a testament to Maurice’s system of playing fast and forcing opponents into mistakes.
Like his roster of players, Gerard Gallant was dumped by his former team — who can forget the picture of him getting into a taxi with his luggage after getting fired by Florida last season? — only to thrive in his new home. A Jack Adams Award nominee as coach of the year for the second time in his career, Gallant’s ability to bring a group of castoffs together in a short period of time has been nothing short of remarkable as Vegas earned 109 points to win the Pacific Division in its stunning inaugural campaign. The Knights, who swept the Anaheim Ducks before brushing aside the San Jose Sharks in six games, play relentless hockey, never seeming to take their foot off the gas.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press