The Western Conference Final has a different look this year and it’s about time. The Vegas Golden Knights will tangle with the Winnipeg Jets in the best-of-seven series and that means there are a few firsts to discuss.
For one, the Jets will appear in their first conference final in franchise history. The club entered the NHL as the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000 and moved to the ‘Peg in 2011. At that time, they were still an Eastern Conference club. By the 2013-2014 season, they moved to the Western Conference and now inhabit the Central Division.
The Golden Knights have also made history. They’re an astonishing 8-2 in the post-season, which is the best record by any team through its first 10 playoff games. They are just the third team to win multiple playoff series in their debut year, joining the 1918 Toronto Arenas and the 1968 St. Louis Blues.
Without a doubt, few people saw this coming. The Golden Knights were supposed to be okay, but they weren’t supposed to look like a dominant squad in these playoffs. And the Jets, too, were okay. Were.
In the light of day – and ahead of the Western Conference Final’s first game – both teams really do look like winners.
The Jets boast one of the best goalies in the NHL. Connor Hellebuyck kept his cool against the Nashville Predators in the second round, even when Pekka Rinne lost his, and he’s been good enough to become a Vezina finalist. He won three of four starts in Nashville and is 8-4 in the post-season with a .927 save percentage.
As good as Hellebuyck has been for the Jets, Marc-Andre Fleury has been even better for Vegas.
His .951 save percentage is tops among starting goalies in the playoffs, plus he has four shutouts. Four.
Vegas’ forwards are obviously capable of scoring, with William Karlsson managing 10 points in 10 games. Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have 11 points in the post-season, which accounts for one honey of a top line. Rookie Alex Tuch has made an impact, with four goals and seven points in the playoffs.
Winnipeg’s top line is formidable, too.
Mark Scheifele exploded for seven goals against the Predators and has 11 in a dozen post-season games, giving him the offensive lead. He averages 21:14 of ice time per game, tops among Jets forwards. Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor complete the set, although Connor hasn’t come alive quite yet.
This will be a fast series, with the Golden Knights playing an up-tempo game that could put the Jets on their heels early.
And Vegas has the tenacity to make their opponents pay, especially with stellar goaltending. They’ve allowed an average of 34.4 shots against per game and that may provide an opening for Winnipeg, but I wouldn’t bet on it.