Before the season started, no one thought the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights would be squaring off in the Western Conference Finals.
The Jets, who missed the playoffs a season ago, are giving Canadian hockey fans hope of ending a Stanley Cup drought that dates all the way back to 1993.
Meanwhile, the Golden Knights (largely made up of players deemed expendable last summer) are doing the exact opposite of what was expected from an expansion team in its inaugural season.
Let’s take a look at how this series breaks down:
How they got here
Winnipeg: The Jets handled the Minnesota Wild with ease in the first round, but then came the daunting task of the Nashville Predators. Winnipeg edged out the Presidents’ Trophy winners in an intense seven game series.
Vegas: Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings behind the spectacular play of Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round and took care of business against the San Jose Sharks to reach the conference finals.
Winnipeg: The Jets first line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor has been sensational so far this postseason. Scheifele leads all postseason scorers with 11 goals, including seven against Nashville (all on the road). Winnipeg’s second line is just as strong as their first, with elite goal scorer Patrik Laine, talented winger Nikolaj Ehlers and veteran leader Paul Statsny. Adam Lowry centers their go-to checking line alongside Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev, which pushes veteran Brian Little down to the fourth line with wingers Mathieu Perrault and Joel Armia.
Vegas: Led by William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, the Golden Knights possess one of the fastest first lines in the NHL. Marchessault has four goals and seven assists in only 10 postseason games. Veterans Erik Haula, James Neal and David Perron provide them with second line stability and a high level of production. Their third line of Cody Eakin, Oscar Lindberg and Alex Tuch has the speed and strength to cause matchup problems with the opposing teams’ third line. Ryan Carpenter, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Tomas Nosek round out the forward group for Vegas.
Advantage: Winnipeg. The talent and experience factors are what give the Jets the edge.
Winnipeg: The Jets defensive core has contributed to 10 goals and 15 assists, led by Dustin Byfuglien who has four goals and nine assists this postseason. Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey have continued to be impressive on both sides of the ice, while Tyler Myers uses his 6-foot-8, 229-pound frame to his advantage. Stay-at-home defensemen Toby Enstrom and Ben Chariot provide security for a defense which thrives at pushing the pace and creating offense.
Vegas: The Golden Knights do not have a true number one defenseman, but they do have six men who play extremely well together. Five defensemen, led by Nate Schmidt (25:36) average over 20 minutes of ice-time a game. Brayden McNabb has been a hitting machine this postseason, averaging a remarkable 4.9 hits per game while also leading the team in shots blocked (31). Journeyman Deryk Engelland has been invaluable on the penalty kill with nine blocked shots in a total 45 minutes of penalty-kill time. Shea Theodore and Colin Miller have shown signs of development this postseason and veteran Luca Sbisa has gotten his legs back under him after missing the first eight games of the postseason.
Advantage: Winnipeg. The Jets have the best two-way defensive group in the league. They are capable of shutting down opposing teams’ offenses and igniting their own.
Winnipeg: Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck has been just as formidable in the postseason as he was in the regular season. The young netminder has posted a 2.25 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage through the first two rounds.
Vegas: Former Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury has been nothing short of phenomenal this postseason. The 33-year-old leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.53 goals-against-average and a .951 save percentage.
Advantage: Vegas. Hellebuyck has shown promise, but Fleury is playing the best hockey of his career.
Winnipeg: The Jets have been average so far in the postseason in both special teams categories. Through two rounds, they have a power play percentage of 22.6% and a power play percentage of 75%.
Vegas: The Golden Knights power play has been relatively pedestrian in the playoffs with a power play percentage of only 17.5%, but their penalty kill has been dominant. They have posted a penalty kill percentage of 84% through the first two rounds.
Advantage: Vegas. While their power play needs some work, their penalty kill puts them ahead in this category.
Winnipeg: The Jets are remarkably healthy right now after welcoming back forward Mathieu Perrault last round.
Vegas: With the return of defenseman Luca Sbisa in the second round, the Golden Knights are at full strength.
Advantage: Even. Both teams are healthy and ready to go.
Winnipeg: Kyle Connor. The forward scored 31 goals during the regular season, but only has two in the playoffs. If Connor heats up against Vegas, their first line could be unstoppable.
Vegas: Marc-Andre Fleury. The Golden Knights are facing their toughest opponent yet and will need their elite goaltender to maintain his high level of play. Fleury has the capability to not just steal a game from the Jets, but steal a series.
Vegas in seven. This series is going to be one for the ages. Both teams are vying to make it to their first-ever Stanley Cup Finals, but in the end, I think Marc-Andre Fleury will bring his team one step closer to Lord Stanley’s Cup.