The Vegas Golden Knights are back in the playoffs after a bit of a roller-coaster season, roaring back to claim top spot in the Pacific Division with 111 points and a 51-22-19 record.
Standing across from them are the Winnipeg Jets, a team whose promising start turned into a desperate — but ultimately successful — attempt at holding on to the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Despite a chaotic offseason, the Golden Knights managed to steady the ship and cruise to the franchise’s third division title. Vegas got it done by committee once again, with no player scoring more than Jack Eichel‘s 66 points, but with six skaters eclipsing the 50-point mark. Chandler Stephenson earned his first All-Star appearance, finishing second in team scoring with 65 points, building off his already-impressive 64-point campaign in 2021-22.
Mark Stone only appeared in 43 games as he struggled with a back injury, but his productive 38 points indicate that he may be a big boost to this team’s offense as he returns for the playoffs.
The Jets had the third-most wins in the NHL (32) heading into the month of February, firing on all cylinders with many viewing them as a sneaky Stanley Cup contender. Kyle Connor led the way with 80 points in 82 games, Josh Morrissey exploded for a 76-point campaign to make a strong Norris Trophy case, while Mark Scheifele scored a career-high 42 goals. In the crease, Connor Hellebuyck was back to his best, winning 37 games (tied for second most in the league) while putting up a staggering .920 save percentage. Expect him to earn some nominations for the Vezina.
However, Winnipeg has been anything but a contender since Feb. 1, going 14-14-2 down the stretch while barely staving off the surging Nashville Predators for a playoff spot. The offense has dried up, as the Jets ranked 30th in the league in goals scored over that span.
The only other time these teams faced each other in the postseason was in the 2018 Western Conference final, when Vegas shocked the hockey world to advance to the Stanley Cup in its first season of existence.
What have you done for me lately?
The Golden Knights had a relatively strong end to their season, going 6-1-3 over their last 10 as they solidified top spot in the Pacific.
Their special teams, however, struggled mightily to close the season. The power play limped along at a 14.8 percent clip, significantly lower than the unremarkable 20 percent efficiency rate on the season. Vegas also struggled to kill penalties down the stretch, successfully seeing out only 68 percent of their kills.
While the Jets have not been particularly great on the power play, they did boast the league’s seventh-best penalty kill during the regular season.
Despite the sweaty palms on the back nine of the campaign, Winnipeg did see out the year with some composure, going 5-2-0 over their last seven while outscoring opponents 26-13. Hellebuyck has been rock solid in April, winning four out of five games with a .953 save percentage and 1.41 goals against average.
The Golden Knights will win if…
They can continue to block shots at the league-leading rate they did during the regular season. Vegas’ 1,494 blocked shots helped keep the team’s goalie carousel from becoming a problem, with Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb topping the league charts in that category. Shot suppression and offensive opportunism is the name of the game for the Golden Knights, and will be the key to victory in the playoffs.
The Jets will win if…
Hellebuyck decides to be the best player in this series. He could give his team a great chance at pulling off the upset, especially against an offensively-challenged Golden Knights squad.
For the same reasons listed above, Hellebuyck is just the perfect candidate to make this series his own.
The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung hero)
Ivan Barbashev already has a Stanley Cup ring, and feels like the kind of player that can get a big goal or make a key play when push comes to shove, which is why Vegas sought him out at the trade deadline.
Jets in seven.