It took three rounds for the Vegas Golden Knights to trail in a series. It only took one period for the Winnipeg Jets to score as many goals (three) as the Los Angeles Kings did against Vegas in four games.
In case the previous paragraph didn’t make things clear enough, the Jets took off early in Game 1 of the 2018 Western Conference Final, generating a 3-1 lead through 20 minutes. The outcome was never really in doubt from that point on as the Jets took a 1-0 series lead via a convincing 4-2 win.
Marc-Andre Fleury made some difficult saves in Game 1, but the Jets ultimately got to him, especially early on. Things seemed like they might spiral out of control, particularly when a 3-0 tally survived an arduous review process.
There was some rough stuff on Saturday, with Ryan Reaves sending Jets captain Blake Wheeler into Vegas’ bench and James Neal shaking up Toby Enstrom with a hit that angered plenty of Winnipeg fans. As of this moment, Enstrom appears to be OK:
The Golden Knights enjoyed a lengthy layoff after dispatching the Sharks in six games, while the Jets were forced to play a Game 7 against the Nashville Predators on Thursday. If Winnipeg is more fatigued, it certainly didn’t show early on in this one.
Vegas, meanwhile, has to hope that it shook off the rust, not unlike how the Tampa Bay Lightning must be hoping/feeling after falling to the Washington Capitals in their Game 1.
There were times when the Golden Knights seemed a little over their heads, arguably for the first real time during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Maybe Vegas was eventually able to get it together and gain some confidence heading into Game 2? Some of the underlying numbers provide some fuel for optimism:
On the other hand, similar metrics showed that the Jets were able to really slow down the Golden Knights when they wanted to clog things up. It’s not the greatest sign for Vegas to only muster 20 shots on goal despite trailing by at least two goals most of the match (Patrik Laine made it 2-0 just 6:49 into Game 1).
It’s ultimately just one game. The Golden Knights faced some pushback after rattling the Sharks with a 7-0 drubbing in Game 1 of that series, while the Lightning and Capitals won their second-round series despite losing Game 1.
Fleury will need to bounce back, and the Golden Knights must put more pressure on Connor Hellebuyck. Gerard Gallant will need to ask himself if Vegas should slow things down, much like the Predators did during their more successful moments against the Jets. That wouldn’t be an easy choice, as the Golden Knights got this far by playing a very “free,” aggressive style not normally seen from teams believed to be underdogs.
Throwing away your blueprint after a Game 1 loss would almost certainly be foolish. On the the hand, Gallant must at least monitor the situation to ponder adjustments. He doesn’t want to make changes too late, after all.
Simply put, the Jets were one of the best teams in the NHL for a reason. Winnipeg boasts high-level scorers (and quite a few of them), a fantastic group of defensemen, and a goalie who’s rarely giving up shaky goals. That’s a tough challenge for any team, so we’ll see if the Golden Knights can defy their biggest odds yet.
(Game 2 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Here’s the livestream link.)