Jets vs. Golden Knights: PHT’s Western Conference Final preview

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If you were to tell me your Western Conference Final pick at the start of the season would have involved the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights the only logical response would be to tell you that you are a rotten liar and nobody believes you.

A first-year expansion team. A team that until this season had never won a single postseason game and had made the playoffs just once in the previous 10 years. Each on their own an improbable success story this season. Yet here they are together, each just four wins away from a completely unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

It may not be the matchup we expected at this point, but given the way these two teams play and are built it could be a fast-pace, back-and-forth series. They both have great offenses, they both have great goalies, and they both offer an incredible storyline with Vegas trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final as a literal expansion team, and the Jets trying to bring Winnipeg its first ever Stanley Cup.

Here is how the matchup looks as the series begins on Saturday night.

Schedule

Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
Friday, May 18, 8pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
*Tuesday, May 22, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Thursday, May 24, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN

Offense

Jets: The Jets have been one of the top offensive teams in the league over the past two years and are absolutely loaded with top-line talent. Then they added to at the trade deadline by picking up Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, and he has been absolutely incredible in the playoffs. The scary thing about them right now in the playoffs? They are still scoring goals and really haven’t gotten Patrik Laine (three goals in 12 games) and Nikolaj Ehlers (zero goals in 11 games) going yet. They have front-line talent, they are deep, they are fast, they have skill. They pretty much have it all up front.

Golden Knights: Even though they had a bunch of players have great years — including a couple of career years — they don’t really have the superstar individual talent the Jets have. That doesn’t mean they are not a threat. They are fast, they play fast, and they don’t really have a glaring weakness as pretty much all four of their lines is legitimate first or second line NHL quality. No matter who is on the ice they can hurt you. They got a lot of help from the NHL’s other general managers in the expansion draft process (Hello, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, David Perron, and William Karlsson) and they were able to take advantage of that by building an exciting, fast team that head coach Gerard Gallant has been more than happy to turn loose. The most dangerous thing about them? They never let up depending on the score.

Advantage: The Jets, but it is close. These are two of the top-five offenses in the league and they can both go three-and four-lines deep when it comes to getting balanced scoring. The Jets get a little bit of an edge because they have more of the front-line superstar talent that can take over a game (Laine and Mark Scheifele specifically).

Defense

Jets: They’ve been missing some key players at different times this postseason, but this is a pretty good unit with Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tobias Enstrom leading the way. Byfuglien is the one that is playing truly outstanding right now  with 13 points in 12 games and logging more than 26 minutes of ice-time per night. So much was made of their offense during the season it was maybe easy to overlook the fact they were also a top-five team in goals against.

Golden Knights: Entering the season this was probably expected to be the weakest part of the Golden Knights’ roster, and while a lot of their goal prevention success comes from the goaltending they did do an excellent job during the season of limiting shots and chances against. A lot of the young players (Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller) have taken a pretty big step forward right away. Still, the goaltending is what drives this team defensively and they’ve actually given up quite a bit of shots in the playoffs.

Advantage: The Jets. These are two of the three best goal prevention teams in the playoffs (and the other team in the top-three only played four playoff games … so let’s just say they are the two best) but the Jets have the higher end talent and I don’t think they are as dependent on their goalie to keep teams off the board as the Golden Knights have been.

Goaltending

Jets: The Jets were probably good enough as a team to make the playoffs in recent years more than they have only to be completely sabotaged by bad goaltending. This year they finally had the goaltending to go with everything else and it has not only made them a great team, it has made them what is right now the leading favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Connor Hellebuyck finally solidified the position and turned in a performance that earned him a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting.

Golden Knights: Then there is Marc-Andre Fleury. He has been downright dominant all season for Vegas and has to be considered the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point. For a few years in Pittsburgh he was objectively one of the least productive playoff goalies in the NHL and probably the biggest liability standing in front of his own team. The past few years, however, he has probably been his team’s greatest strength in the playoffs.

Advantage: Golden Knights. Another close one, but this one probably goes to Vegas. Hellebuyck got a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting but Fleury could have easily been there alongside him had he not missed so much time due to injury earlier in the year.

Special Teams

Jets: The Jets’ power play has been lethal in the playoffs, converting on 25 percent of its chances, continuing what was a strong regular season performance. They were also a top-10 team on the penalty kill during the season but have seen that number drop a bit in the playoffs.

Golden Knights: Vegas’ power play has been very hit-and-miss this postseason. It has had games where it has dominated (a 3-for-10 game in Game 1 against the Sharks; a 2-for-6 game later in the series) but has also had lengthy stretches without scoring. Their penalty kill has been one of the best units in the playoffs, though a lot of that probably comes from the fact they also have the best goalie in the playoffs.

Advantage: The Jets, simply because their power play has been a bit more consistent and they might be able to get to Fleury and the Vegas penalty kill in a way that the Kings and Sharks were totally incapable of doing. The Jets are by far the most talented team Vegas will have faced this postseason.

X-Factors

Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers has become one of the key building blocks for the Jets organization, and even though he just turned 22 years old a few months ago already has a pair of 25-goal seasons in the NHL on his resume. He is an outstanding player but has been mostly quiet for the Jets this postseason, having yet to find the back of the net. If the Jets can get him going along with everyone else there may be no stopping them.

Golden Knights: Like Ehlers with the Jets, David Perron has been a huge part of Vegas’ success this season, and like Ehlers has yet to score a goal in the playoffs. His line is still producing (he does have seven assists, after all) but he has managed just eight shots on goal in eight games. He has another level he can get to offensively.

Prediction

Jets in 6. Vegas’  year one success has been one of the most improbable stories in North American sports history, but this is where it comes to an end. The Jets are going to be by far the best team they have played in the playoffs and will present a challenge unlike the ones San Jose and Los Angeles presented (they 11th and 12th best teams in the league, giving Vegas what was by far the easiest path to the Conference Finals round). The Jets are just on a roll right now and look like they can carry that all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.