In blackjack, the magic number is 21, but in the NHL playoffs, that number is only four.
The Winnipeg Jets soundly thumped the ferocious Predators 5-1 in Thursday night’s Game 7, but they don’t have time to bask in victory’s glorious glow. In less than 24 hours, they’ll be back on the ice to tangle with the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
The matchup between the Jets and Golden Knights will feature two high-rolling teams locked in an ultra-high-stakes game, vying for the pot of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. But who has better cards to start?
There’s not much time until Game 1. In the spirit of getting you in front of your TV in time for puck drop, here’s a short series preview.
Jets & Golden Knights’ Offences Outstanding…
But the Jets’ offence shines slightly brighter. Both sides have scoring prowess — the Jets scored 273 goals in the regular season, only five more than the Golden Knights’ 268. On both teams, if defences key on one goal-scorer, it just leaves another one open.
The Golden Knights’ top line has shouldered most of the burden thus far. The combination of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson have combined for 31 points in ten games. They got off to a slow start in Round 1, where the team scored only seven goals over four games (but still managed to sweep the Los Angeles Kings), but exploded in Round 2 against the San Jose Sharks. In a 7-0 Game 1 blowout, they combined for nine points.
The Jets have an embarrassment of riches on offence, and their top line has been lights-out, too. Mark Scheifele’s having a prolific postseason (in fact, his seven road goals against the Predators set a new NHL record) and has lit the lamp 11 times already. Blake Wheeler has 15 points and Kyle Connor has eight.
Mark Scheifele now leads the postseason with 11 goals. 9 of them have come on the road. All 7 in this series have come in Nashville. @NHLonNBCSports
— Liam McHugh (@liam_mchugh) May 11, 2018
It’s the production beyond the top line where the Jets have the edge. The Golden Knights’ second line of David Perron, Erik Haula, and James Neal is certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, the Jets’ second line, overall depth, and veterans, who have carried the playoff mail, are all just a little bit better.
Paul Stastny — the addition of whom added just another weapon the Jets’ well-stocked arsenal — was a force to be reckoned with against the Predators, putting up 10 points including three in Game 7. His line-mates, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, are two of the most offensively gifted youngsters in the entire NHL, and can torch anyone at any time. Despite the pair having combined for 16 points, they haven’t played up to their potential yet these playoffs, a terrifying thought.
Really, all Jets lines are capable of scoring. Fourth-liner Brandon Tanev, for example, notched a trio against the Predators. Bottom-six forwards Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp, Joel Armia, and Bryan Little have all been quiet thus far, but they had between 21 and 43 points each in the regular season. They’ve all been known to pot a goal from time to time, and cannot be overlooked.
Defence Is a Dead Heat
It’s tough to tell who has the better blue line. The Golden Knights’ defence has been solid, overall, and have shown they are capable of locking up talented offences. In Round 1 against the Kings, they looked comfortable in tight, low-scoring games and defending leads. They allowed just three goals all series. However, they did falter at times and have allowed 34.4 shots per game through the first two rounds, fourth-worst. The ageless Derek Engelland and Brayden McNabb log the lion’s share of the minutes, both averaging over 23 minutes per game.
The Jets defence has been solid, too. The combination of Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey has morphed into the Jets’ top pair. The duo’s been tasked with shutting down top lines. They faced Predators’ trio of biggest guns — of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg — more than any other Jets d-pairing.
Dustin Byfuglien has also been a playoff beast. He’s thrown his weight around and has found the scoresheet, while playing a less risky, more defensively solid game. He also eats up the most minutes, averaging over 26 per game. The Jets defence has contributed more offensively, thanks in part, but not exclusively, to Byfuglien. Jets blue-liners have pitched in for 25 points, while the Golden Knights’ have pitched in for 15.
If you simply look at goals against to determine which defence is better, the Golden Knights have allowed 17 goals while the Jets have allowed ten more than that. It’s a simplistic and unfair comparison, though, given the Jets have played two more games.
Looking into advanced statistics shows just how even these squads are on the back end. Shea Theodore has the Golden Knights’ best Corsi For Percentage at even strength (CF%) at 56.6 percent. The Jets’ best regular is Josh Morrissey, at 57.3 percent. The worst regular for the Golden Knights is Brayden McNabb, at 47.7 percent, while the worst for the Jets is Toby Enstrom, who’s looked out-of-sorts at times since coming back from injury and is operating at just 42.7 percent.
Both Possess Great, Game-Stealing Goaltenders
A battle between two elite goaltenders is on the horizon. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Connor Hellebuyck have been ridiculous through the first two rounds and been massive contributors to their teams’ successes.
Fleury has been absurd, and has gone from playoff zero to hero. The Golden Knights’ goalie carousel — one that was spinning nauseatingly fast early on in 2017-18 — has stopped and Fleury has retaken the crease. He’s been undeniably their best player as of late and his stats are eye-popping.
“Fleury’s numbers are downright ridiculous at this point,” THW’s Dan Rice wrote in his recent piece Fleury the Conn Smythe Favourite. “In ten games, in addition to his four shutouts, his save percentage is a robust .951 and his goals-against average is a minuscule 1.53. Remarkably with an expansion team, he had the best statistical season of his career.”
Connor Hellebuyck’s been every bit as good as Fleury. The 24-year-old goaltender has won countless games for the Jets — both in the regular season and the playoffs — they had no business winning. The man who wasn’t even slated as the starter when the season began has become the Jets’ biggest boon. He deserves huge credit for his play this year, as the Jets simply wouldn’t be where they are without him.
Hellebuyck’s numbers aren’t quite up to Fleury’s, but they’re still very good. He has a goals-against average of 2.25, a save percentage of .927, and a pair of shutouts. What may set Hellebuyck apart, however, is his bounce-back ability. He rarely has two bad games in a row and his ability to shake off a less-than-stellar performance is one his most valuable traits.
Connor Hellebuyck performance immediately after allowing 5+ goals in the previous game this season:
Save %: .955
Shutouts: 2 pic.twitter.com/ORcrXOesPG
— Wiser Fans (@WiserFan) April 18, 2018
Overall, it’s tough to assert one team has an edge when it comes to goaltending, but not tough to assert it’s one of the best head-to-head match-ups in recent memory. It may very well prove to be the most compelling storyline of the series.
Related: Fleury the Conn Smythe Favorite
Series May Start Slow, but Will Pick up as it Goes
The Jets and Golden Knights aren’t exactly familiar foes like the Jets and Predators or Golden Knights and Sharks. The teams met three times in the regular season, with the Golden Knights winning two of them. The last time they faced was Feb. 1, when David Perron scored the overtime winner to give his side a 3-2 win.
Previously, the Jets won 7-4 back on Dec. 1 in one of their most exciting games of the year, a win which avenged a 5-2 drubbing the Sin City squad gave them in their first-ever game on Nov. 10.
The fact the two teams haven’t faced in over three months may translate into a bit of a feeling-out process early on. The first game or two may be methodical — rather than fast-paced and frantic — as the teams keep their cards close to their chests.
However, don’t expect things to stay tentative for long. Make no mistake: with so many chips at their disposal, these two teams will be all in to win. Neither is playing with a stacked deck.
This series is a roulette wheel, except red and black has been replaced with white and gold. The ball could land on either colour as neither team has a distinct advantage. One thing is clear, though: you’ll want to be around the table to see these two gamesters go head-to-head.