With the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs finally getting underway, the Vegas Golden Knights will make their return to the postseason tonight against the Winnipeg Jets for Game 1 of their first round series.
On top of earning a franchise record 111 points, the Golden Knights captured their third division title in six seasons which is tied for the most any team has won since they joined the NHL in 2017. The commitment to keeping this competitive window open as long as possible has worked remarkably well for this franchise, and they’re in a legitimate position to contend for a Stanley Cup once again.
It’s been a wildly different season for both teams, with the Golden Knights never falling out of the top three spots in their division and the Jets playing their best hockey in the final stretch, managing to squeak into the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
The Golden Knights won all three games against the Jets this season, with their last meeting taking place on Dec. 13. A lot has happened with both of these teams since then, so let’s take a look at what factors may give the Golden Knights the edge in this series.
Commitment to Defense
The goaltending situation for the Golden Knights has been a wild one. With five different goalies starting at least one game this season including Logan Thompson, Adin Hill, Jonathan Quick and Jiri Patera, Laurent Brossoit has emerged as the likely starter for the first game of this series despite spending the first half of the season in the American Hockey League (AHL).
It’s been a collective effort from all of the goaltending personnel but in the playoffs it’s always important to have a starter that you’re confident in, and that is a luxury that the Jets undeniably have with Connor Hellebuyck. He’s been the backbone of their team for so long and was the main reason why they were able to make a push for the postseason, which makes him the biggest threat for the Golden Knights.
With that being said, the Golden Knights will live and die by their defensive play in this series. When Bruce Cassidy’s system is at its best they give up no odd-man rushes, force teams to dump pucks in, and do a great job of covering up passing lanes in their own zone.
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They also have three players in the top 10 in blocked shots in Alec Martinez (first), Brayden McNabb (second), and Alex Pietrangelo (seventh), giving them the level of commitment they need from a team without an elite presence in net.
In the 2021-22 regular season series against the Jets, the Golden Knights were outscored 16-7. This season they outscored them 13-8, cutting their goals allowed in half on nearly identical shots allowed. This is a testament to just how good this team can be at limiting dangerous chances, and they’ll have to do so again to find success in this series.
All of the teams entering the playoffs have extremely talented forwards on their top two lines, and this series is no different. While the Jets have a much more dangerous top six that includes a number of scoring threats like Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and now Nikolaj Ehlers returning from injury, what could end up making the difference for the Golden Knights in this series is their forward depth.
Having dealt with so many injuries to their offensive core this season, a number of players have stepped up and shown their ability to succeed in a variety of different roles. Some of the best examples are Michael Amadio and William Carrier, who each had a career-high 16 goals this season while averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time. The ageless wonder Phil Kessel was even able to put up 14 goals while averaging four minutes less than he did last season with the Arizona Coyotes.
Following the Golden Knights’ most recent practice, there was some further clarity as to how Cassidy will be deploying his forwards when the series gets underway. With Mark Stone set to make his long-awaited return for Game 1 after recovering from back surgery, he was seen skating alongside Chandler Stephenson and Michael Amadio, in what could be a really dangerous middle-six combination should they end up staying together.
The Jets’ offense is extremely top-heavy, and they don’t have a lot of flexibility to adjust their lines and try to find favourable matchups without giving up some firepower on their top two units. This is an area of the game that the Golden Knights have been able to take advantage of against a number of teams this season, and their depth could prove to be too much for the Jets to handle.
Looking at the special teams matchups between these teams throughout the regular season, the only unit that really stands out is the Jets’ penalty kill. They finished with the seventh-best penalty kill in the NHL and lived by the idea that your goaltender is your best penalty killer.
The Golden Knights’ power play was 18th in the league and was 28th since the All-Star Break, operating at 14.9% through their final 31 games. They lacked an overall sense of urgency with the man advantage, constantly deferring to one another rather than having anyone with the finishing mentality that is necessary to create dangerous chances.
Adding Stone to the top unit gives the Golden Knights a huge boost with him being such a dangerous passing and shooting threat, but everyone needs to play with a higher level of confidence on the power play for it to be dangerous in this series.
One thing the Golden Knights have going for them is that they take the least amount of penalties in the NHL per-60 minutes (2.88), while also ranking 31st in penalties drawn per-60 minutes (3.18). Considering the way that the NHL is officiated in the playoffs, all signs point to a lot of this series being played at even strength, giving the Golden Knights an advantage.
This matchup is far closer than the standings would suggest. The Golden Knights could have their hands full with the Jets’ top six and Hellebuyck is capable of carrying them through a game on any given night.
Depth has been the deciding factor for so many teams that have made a deep run in the playoffs in years past, and it’s hard to ignore the edge that the Golden Knights have in that area. I can see the Jets giving them trouble early on, but I believe they can get it done in six games.
Puck drop is set for 9:30 PM ET/6:30 PM PT at T-Mobile Arena. With the Golden Knights winning their last three games at home, they’ll look to carry that momentum into tonight’s match.