The Western Conference Finals are officially here. The Vegas Golden Knights are a part of them. It’s time to party.
The Golden Knights, after winning eight of the first 10 games of their inaugural Stanley Cup Playoff run, are one of the final four teams left with a legitimate chance to hoist that giant silver cup. Vegas is about to start its toughest test yet in these playoffs, taking on a Winnipeg Jets team that has every right to be feeling itself at this moment.
The Jets are coming off an epic seven-game series against the Nashville Predators — the same Predators that won the Presidents’ Trophy and were the reigning Western Conference champions. Winnipeg won three of the four possible games at Bridgestone Arena and dominated Game 7 with a 5-1 victory in Nashville.
So, the narrative speaks that Winnipeg is the favorite in this series, but narratives have been re-written about 100 times during the Golden Knights’ first campaign as an NHL franchise. This is going to be a fun series, nonetheless. If you’re interested in what the enemy has to say, visit our brethren up north at Arctic Ice Hockey.
Here’s your keys to the game for Game 1 of the (pinches self, sees its not a dream and cries in pain) Western Conference Finals.
Setting the tone
It’s going to be a raucous scene at Bell MTS Place. The white-out will be amazing. The atmosphere is going to be electric. This is the first trip ever to the conference final for both franchises. It’s going to be, as the kids say, lit.
It’s also imperative that the Golden Knights set the tone. The best way to do that is how Vegas played in the final 40 minutes of the Game 6 close-out against San Jose (we’ll give the first 20 minutes to Mr. Post). The Golden Knights played a patient game. They didn’t overreach on the defensive side while suffocating San Jose’s offense. The Golden Knights, for the final 110 of 120 minutes against the Sharks in must-win situations, played some of their best hockey.
Disclaimer: The Jets are much better than the Sharks. It’s not going to be a cakewalk if Vegas sticks to that plan. Trying to contain Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine is the equivalent of asking Donald Trump to stop tweeting. It’s nearly impossible. Those three, along with Kyle Connor, are on another level of good the Golden Knights have not faced. Setting the tone — whether it be by scoring the first goal, or keeping that offense quiet — will be crucial for Vegas. They need at least a split before going back to T-Mobile Arena. That’s a start.
For the third series in a row, the Golden Knights are going against one hell of a goaltender.
Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck is coming off a fantastic 36-save performance in Game 7 at Nashville. It’s a microcosm to how stupendous he’s been all season — 44-11-9 with a 2.54 goals-against average of 2.54 and a .924 save percentage. He’s been amazing.
You know who else has been amazing? Marc-Andre Fleury.
One thing we learned in Game 7 of the Winnipeg-Nashville series is Fleury’s Vezina chances died on the hill of Pekka Rinne. Take the two concussion-filled months out of the equation — Fleury has been one of the best goaltenders this season, and he’s proving it during this postseason redemption tour (8-2, 1.53 GAA and .951 save percentage).
If you love goalies, this will be an ultimate matchup because both offenses are so damn good. Hellebuyck isn’t invincible, as shown in the second round, and this will be Fleury’s first test against a high-octane offense.
Are you not entertained? Or something like that.
Battle of top lines
Ultimately, this series is going to come down to depth. Vegas’ bottom six (hi, Ryan Reaves) will need to play as stellar as it did in Games 5 and 6 against San Jose if they want to keep this series going for as long as it can.
But the top lines of Winnipeg and Nashville are going to dictate how this series goes. For as much as Vegas’ depth has been vital to its postseason success, getting the production they did in the San Jose series from Jonathan Marchessault (four goals, five assists), William Karlsson (three goals, five assists) and Reilly Smith (one goal, seven assists) is going to be what paces Vegas in this series.
The same goes for Winnipeg. Scheifele, Connor and Wheeler will dictate Winnipeg’s performance from a 200-foot game standpoint. Laine and Paul Statsny will be X-Factors (and are some good ones at that), but the importance to Game 1 will be which first line can create better scoring opportunities and which line can create more via the forecheck. Vegas’ 81-71-19 line has been a menace forechecking all season, and that’s one reason why the Golden Knights won two of three meetings against Winnipeg in the regular season.
Who’s going to be the superstar in this series?
I can understand for anyone choosing the Jets. Just like I understood anyone for picking the Kings or the Sharks. Yet, talented teams have stepped up to Vegas and have fallen each time.
It doesn’t make sense to go against Vegas now. Throw stats, analytics and everything you know about hockey out the window because the Golden Knights have done that all season. The Cinderella story continues into the Stanley Cup Final.
Golden Knights in six.
Golden Knights projected lineup
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
David Perron — Erik Haula — James Neal
Alex Tuch — Cody Eakin — Oscar Lindberg
Ryan Reaves — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Ryan Carpenter
Nate Schmidt — Brayden McNabb
Shea Theodore — Deryk Engelland
Luca Sbisa — Colin Miller
Jets projected lineup
Kyle Connor -- Mark Scheifele — Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers — Paul Statsny — Patrik Laine
Mathieu Perreault — Bryan Little — Joel Armia
Brandon Tanev — Adam Lowry — Andrew Copp
Josh Morrisey — Jacob Trouba
Tobias Enstrom — Dustin Byfuglien
Ben Chiarot — Tyler Myers
How to watch
Time: 4 p.m. PT
TV: NBC, NBC Sports app
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM