Shepard Price: Alright, I’ll go first. Beauty before age, I guess.
The Vegas Golden Knights have been the underdog before. This season, they were expected by many to be one of, if not the worst team in the NHL. Yet here they stand, in the Western Conference Final, getting there two games faster than the Winnipeg Jets. They took the San Jose Sharks down in six games, which really could have been five (never forget the good goal from Game 2).
The biggest advantage the Golden Knights have in this series: Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s hard to expect Fleury to be as excellent as he has been in the postseason against Winnipeg. That’s what people said before the series against San Jose as well.
Yet, Fleury posted two shutouts, a .935 save percentage, and a 2.13 goals against average in that series. Amongst goaltenders who have played more than 7 games, that would be the best save percentage and the second-best goals against average.
While Fleury would need to be better than four games with either three or four goals against, he has as many shutouts as games with more than two goals in these playoffs.
Beyond Flower, the Golden Knights looked really good in both of their series. They have the third-best Corsi For percentage of all teams in the third round, and the best goal differential. They’re second to the Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring chance percentage, and have the third-best high-danger differential.
In the regular season, here are the stats for the Golden Knights against the Jets: 130-131 Corsi (49.81 percent), 67-61 shots (52.3 percent), 6-5 even strength goals (54.54 percent) and 20-17 high danger share (54.05 percent). At even strength so far this season, the Golden Knights are the better team. That’s a pretty clear mission statement for Vegas.
The Golden Knights have been able to move the puck incredibly well against teams that pride themselves on defense. They’ve taken a Hart candidate out of a series (Anze Kopitar had just two points in four games), stopped (for the most part) one of the best offensive defensemen in the league (Brent Burns had goals in just one game) and their defense has destroyed first lines (Joe Pavelski’s line didn’t look good, getting only five points in the series, and Kopitar’s disappeared with four points).
The Golden Knights also have the depth to go toe-to-toe with the Jets. That’s something the Jets have always had the advantage of. Over Minnesota, they had a capable bottom-six that scored seven points in five games. Their top-six also had 21 points in that series. Then, against Nashville, their bottom-six had 11 points in seven games.
While the Golden Knights’ depth hasn’t been that productive (besides Alex Tuch’s seven points this postseason, the Golden Knights have gotten just 11 points out of their bottom six in 59 games played amongst the forwards), they have been dominant in terms of puck possession. That will change how the Jets’ depth plays, and could change the series.
The third line, of Tuch, Cody Eakin and Oscar Lindberg has a 54.29 Corsi For percentage, 61.90% shot share and 66.67% high-danger share. They dominated the San Jose Sharks. They can be dominant against whichever line they’re matched against, especially if it’s a bottom-six line from Winnipeg.
The fourth line has been dominant, perhaps even better than the third. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has a 49.57 percent Corsi For at 5-on-5, but a 52.08 percent shot share and 55.56 high danger share. His best linemates, Ryan Reaves and Ryan Carpenter, have Corsis of 64 and 59.77 respectively, shot shares of 80 and 67.57 percent, and high danger shares of 75 and 70.5 percent.
Together, that line has 65.22 Corsi, 77.78 shot share, and 75 percent high-danger share. That fourth line could be a secret weapon for the Golden Knights.
The fact that the Golden Knights have the ability to out-depth the Jets plays in Vegas’s favor.
So does the fact that, at 5-on-5, the top two defensive pairings have allowed just seven goals. In 10 games.
Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb, when playing at 5-on-5 together, have helped the forwards outshoot the opposing team. They’ve allowed just one high-danger goal, and have a good goal differential with five for and only three against.
Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland are even better. They have a 56.95% Corsi, 56.08% shot share, and a 6-3 goal differential. They drive the puck forward well together, and have successfully taken out the likes of Jeff Carter. If they’re assigned to the Paul Stastny, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers line, they could do a lot of damage. That could help sway the momentum in games.
The ability to shut down opposing offenses throughout these playoffs shows what has made the Golden Knights great, and what has gotten them to this point.
They play as a team. The Golden Knights play together. It doesn’t matter where they came from, how they played last year. What matters is what is happening now. Right now, they’re one of the best teams in the league. They’ve destroyed both the Kings and the Sharks. Now, they’ve got their eyes set on Winnipeg.
Winnipeg has the better players, yes. But so did San Jose. So did Los Angeles. That didn’t matter. Neither did home ice advantage, by the way. The Golden Knights are 4-1 on the road in these playoffs.
If the Golden Knights play as they have all season, as a unit, with discipline, they could be better than anybody.
Dalton Mack: Shep, you ignorant slut.
I can probably sum up my argument with the undeniable fact* that Winnipeg has the three best forwards, the two best defensemen and a goaltender that is equal with his counterpart in this series.
Vegas’ top line has been a revelation this year. I don’t think there’s any of us who would doubt that. What Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson did this season — and have continued to do in the playoffs — is astounding.
However, I am not sure any one of those three is better than either Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler or Mark Scheifele. They are, respectively, over the past two seasons: the NHL’s #2 goal scorer, T-6th in points, and one of nine players with at least a point per game (min. 100 GP).
The thing is, the players that surround them are no slouches either. Nikolaj Ehlers had 60 points. Kyle Connor was a 30-goal scorer. Paul Statsny was the opposite of Tomas Tatar—a deadline acquisition that worked. Across 31 games since coming over from St. Louis, the veteran pivot has 27 points, 10 of which came against Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville. (Sidebar; can’t wait to see who backs up a Brinks truck for Statsny this offseason. Woof.)
You take a look at that top-six, and it’s hard to take Vegas’ crew ahead of them, and that’s no slight to the top line or David Perron, Erik Haula and James Neal. It’s simply that Winnipeg scored a best-in-the-West 277 goals thanks in large part to their unreal firepower, despite missing 22 games from Scheifele.
The bottom-six of the Jets features one of the top-10 possession players of the past four years in Mathieu Perreault and a reliable 200-foot center/winger who is a consistent scorer in Bryan Little. Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev combined for 39 points despite missing a combined 58 games. Joel Armia and Andrew Copp had 29 and 28 points respectively, and combined for even fewer penalty minutes (36). How many bottom-sixers can say that?
On Vegas’ end, Alex Tuch is great. I love his game, and if it weren’t for the Vegas top-six personnel, he would be a 2nd-line winger. The drop-off after him, though, is precipitous. Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, even factoring in their penalty killing work, are replacement level players. Tomas Nosek and Tatar are pretty good, but hey, they’re in the press box. Ryan Carpenter, who has been nothing but a pleasant surprise, hasn’t scored since March 16th. Oscar Lindberg ended his season with six points in his final 52 games.
Then we move onto William Carrier and Ryan Reaves. Through 68 combined regular season and playoff games, they have two primary points. Hitting hard is a part of the playoffs, but is not more important than scoring goals.
As far as the defense is concerned, I have a hard time seeing any Vegas blue liners being better than Dustin Byfuglien or Jacob Trouba in this series. While Shea Theodore may end up a better player than Trouba — and Colin Miller was a scoring dynamo this year — it feels safe to say that neither Miller nor Theodore are as good as one of Winnipeg’s big two. Theodore took more offensive zone starts than either Trouba or Big Buff, and Miller practically rented a condo there.
None of the Vegas defensemen who figure to start this series have ever played a season prior to this one in which they averaged 20 or more minutes. Now I’m not saying that time on ice is the measuring stick for how good an NHL player is, but the fact that none of these players ever eclipsed that mark prior to the 2017-18 season cannot purely be a function of systematic undervaluing.
Luca Sbisa was the league’s worst possession player not named Steven Santini. Deryk Engelland has surpassed anyone’s expectations, but he too bled shots at a poor rate — 10th of the 12 defensemen in this series. Points these playoffs? Zero.
The remaining pairing of Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt would be fine if they were not played as essentially a top pairing. I have no knock against them, but they are likely to get hammered by whichever top-two line they play against.
The netminding question is where I am willing to cede the most ground, however the differences between Marc-Andre Fleury and Connor Hellebuyck are extremely small. Fleury’s .927 SV% beats Hellebuyck’s .924 mark from this season, but that’s what—one goal every 333 shots?
I will grant you that Flower’s playoff run has been nothing short of Conn Smythe-y, but Hellebuyck has been quite good as well, posting a .927 save percentage through a dozen tilts. He also squared off with two better teams, in the 117-point Predators and 101-point Wild. The Thornton-less Sharks (100 points) and the Kings (98 points) combined for 29 fewer regular season goals than the Preds/Wild.
Special teams are certainly a factor, and while the star power on Winnipeg is eye-popping, the two teams are rather close in this area. The Jets had a better power play and slightly better penalty kill in the regular season, while Vegas has had a better kill in the playoffs. The key thing for either team here is staying out of the box.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention home-ice advantage. Typically, the home team will win 55 percent of the time, on average. However, Winnipeg has been nothing short of incredible at home this season, going 32-7-2 at Bell MTS Place, with an average of 3.81 goals per game. Vegas has been superb — the house usually wins — but they are guaranteed only a maximum of three home games.
*not necessary undeniable
Regardless which team wins, it feels very safe to say that this is setting up to be a far more exciting series than the one over in the East, where it feels like just a formality on the
T ampa Bay Lightning’s Washington Capitals’ nearly pole-to-pole dominance.