As the Vegas Golden Knights get set to kick off their first-round playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets, it’s worth wondering whether this might be the club’s best shot at going the distance. Holding the best record in a wide-open Western Conference, the team has guaranteed home-ice advantage right up until the Stanley Cup Final. They also boast a deep, defensively sound lineup that will be bolstered by the return of captain Mark Stone.
But before we can start looking ahead to a deep playoff run, the Jets, with a talented forward corps and arguably the Conference’s best goaltender, pose a formidable threat. Winnipeg spent much of the 2022-23 season chasing the Dallas Stars for top spot in the Central Division, but slid back into a wild-card spot down the stretch. Nevertheless, three wins in their past four games and five in their last seven would suggest they’ve picked up some momentum heading into the postseason.
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With plenty to be determined over the next two weeks (and hopefully beyond), here are some of the biggest burning questions ahead of the Golden Knights/Jets series:
What Can Mark Stone Offer?
There were surely some eye rolls in response to how conveniently it worked out that Stone, fresh off back surgery, was activated out of long-term injured reserve (LTIR) just in time for the playoffs and after the salary cap restraints of the regular season were removed. Regardless of what was going on behind the scenes, however, the captain’s return to the lineup offers both a morale boost and an injection of leadership in the Vegas locker room.
What else Stone’s return offers will be a major focal point for this series. In the 43 games he did play this year, the 30-year-old poured in 17 goals and 38 points. While that’s encouraging production when healthy, it’s been more than three months since he played in a game. Moreover, head coach Bruce Cassidy has struck a workable lineup balance with Jonathan Marchessault and Ivan Barbashev playing up with playoff debutante Jack Eichel on the top line.
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Starting Stone on a third line that also features Chandler Stephenson and Michael Amadio, as Cassidy has done in practice, makes a lot of sense. In a best-case scenario, Stone’s presence helps balance out the scoring responsibilities and he can pair with Stephenson, another top-line regular, to challenge the Jets’ defensive depth. At worst, his efforts to return to full capacity can be somewhat shielded through protected minutes outside the top six.
What About the Goaltending?
As the de facto No. 1 vs. No. 8 playoff series in the West, and with Vegas finishing the season with 16 more points than Winnipeg, it stands to reason that the Golden Knights boast the edge in most comparable categories between the teams. That said, the one area where the Jets carry a clear advantage happens to be a big one.
While Winnipeg will turn to 2020 Vezina winner and two-time All-Star Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes, Vegas will counter with career backup (and, ironically, former Jet) Laurent Brossoit. With Logan Thompson still not close to returning, Brossoit will get the nod following a strong finish that saw the 30-year-old go 7-0-3 down the stretch with a 2.17 goals against average (GAA) and a .927 save percentage (SV%) in a return from his own injury issues.
Brossoit, however, is far from a sure thing. The 30-year-old has never started more than 21 games in a season and his playoff experience amounts to coming in for mop-up duty in a 7-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks as a member of the Edmonton Oilers during the first round of the 2017 Postseason.
The Golden Knights do have somewhat of a safety net with two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick backing up Brossoit, but the 37-year-old isn’t the same netminder as the one who won the Conn Smythe Award back in 2012. Nonetheless, expect Cassidy to have a short leash if Brossoit struggles out of the gate.
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Which Jets Team Will Show Up?
Stone’s return and the uncertainty in net aside, the Golden Knights are actually a fairly boring team. Cassidy has built a lineup that plays patient, disciplined hockey, doesn’t make many mistakes and waits for its opportunities rather than take bold risks. While you never know what playoff hockey might bring, it’s hard to see much changing on the Vegas end.
Winnipeg, however, seems less predictable. Much like the Golden Knights and Cassidy, the Jets seemed to benefit from a reset under a new head coach after Rick Bowness took the reins following Paul Maurice’s resignation. As of Jan. 15, the club was sitting pretty atop the Central with a 29-14-1 record, looking poised to put their 2021-22 disappointment amid reports of culture issues behind them. From there, however, they stumbled to a 17-19-2 mark the rest of the way.
If that’s the level of play that Winnipeg will carry over into the Vegas series, it could be a short postseason stay.
Of course, these questions only cover some of the many factors that will decide this rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Final (Vegas won in five games). For the Golden Knights, the ability to maintain Cassidy’s system while providing offensive opportunities to the forward corps is integral. For the Jets, getting a healthy Nikolaj Ehlers back and extending the regular-season success of top defensive pair Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo is critical. Tonight, the fun begins.