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Better matchup for Vegas: Jets or Predators?

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Who should Golden Knights fans be rooting for to win Game 7?

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights are headed to the Western Conference Final (I know, I still can’t believe it either). The schedule is set, and the fun and games will continue for the Knights this Saturday when they hit the road for Game 1.

But there’s just one problem — we still have no idea where Vegas will be playing Game 1. The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators still have to battle it out in Game 7 of their second-round series for the right to take on Vegas in the conference final, and there doesn’t appear to be an odds-on favorite to prevail.

Vegas will obviously have its work cut out regardless of which team makes it to Round 3, but for those looking for a team to root for in Game 7 with the hope of Vegas having a better matchup, look no further. We’ve taken the liberty of breaking down each matchup between the Jets and Predators to give a better indication of which team will be an “easier” opponent for Vegas in the conference final.

Scoring

The Golden Knights average just 2.90 goals per game this postseason (thanks a lot for skewing the data, Jonathan Quick), which ranks ninth out of all 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs. Vegas’ middle-of-the-road scoring total, paired with its 8-2 postseason record, proves one thing — scoring against the Golden Knights is extremely difficult. Vegas allows just 1.70 goals per game in the playoffs; the lowest total of any team that made the postseason. In Round 3, though, the Golden Knights will have no choice but to square off against a team with a higher postseason scoring total (3.45 GF/GP for Winnipeg, 3.33 GF/GP for Nashville).

While the statistics clearly show Winnipeg as being the better team in terms of offense, it may actually be the Predators who have the edge in the scoring department. And a lot of that has to do with depth. An astounding 13 players scored 10 or more goals during the regular season for Nashville, while only eight players managed to surpass the 10-goal threshold for Winnipeg. The Predators are stacked from top to bottom with capable scorers while the Jets rely mostly on a smaller cast of characters to carry the load. And as proven in Vegas’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings, shutting down a top-heavy team is much easier than trying to keep up with a team loaded with scoring depth.

The names Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers may provoke some concern, but they can’t win a best-of-seven series by themselves.

Most favorable matchup for Vegas: Winnipeg

Defense

We’ve already established how difficult it is to score against the Golden Knights, but Winnipeg and Nashville both play pretty stingy defense in their own right. The Jets allow an average of just 2.45 goals per game this postseason, which ranks third out of all playoff-qualifying teams. The Predators have taken somewhat of a step back defensively in the postseason, though, averaging 3.08 GA/GP after allowing just 2.49 goals per game during the regular season (second-best in the NHL).

The key to having an advantage over the Golden Knights, however, isn’t the average amount of goals allowed per game. Rather, it’s how well the high-danger areas are covered. Below is a diagram illustrating the unblocked shots Winnipeg allowed at 5v5 during the regular season. Clearly the Jets do a good job of forcing opposing teams to take shots from the perimeter, which would make life miserable for the Golden Knights, as the majority of their unblocked shots were traced to the high slot during the regular season.

Oh, the perks of having a Dustin Byfuglien.

Nashville, on the other hand, wasn’t as good at covering the high-danger areas. As a matter of fact, a large portion of their unblocked shots allowed at 5v5 were taken from the low slot, where Vegas made a living against the San Jose Sharks in Round 2.

The Golden Knights will have plenty of scoring opportunities regardless of who they take on in the conference final, but it certainly appears the Predators are a little more generous in territorial protection.

Most favorable matchup for Vegas: Nashville

Goaltending

As we’ve all learned firsthand over the last month or so, good goaltending is essential when making a deep playoff run. Marc-Andre Fleury has been inhuman in net for Vegas this postseason, and without him, it’s very possible the Golden Knights may not have even made it out of the first round.

This obviously holds true for the Jets and Predators as well, who both have a Vezina-nominated goaltender patrolling the blue paint. Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne have put together excellent 2017-18 campaigns, and neither one of them would make life very easy for the Golden Knights in the conference final.

That said, though, Winnipeg has the clear edge in the goaltending department at this point of the postseason. Hellebuyck, just 24 years old, is coming off a regular season in which he posted a 2.36 GAA with a .924 Sv%. That play has carried over to the postseason, as his numbers are nearly identical to his regular season totals (2.36 GAA, .922 Sv%).

Rinne, on the other hand, has dropped off dramatically since the playoffs began. During the regular season, he managed a fantastic 2.31 GAA with a .927 Sv%. But through 12 playoff games, the 35-year-old netminder has been nothing short of pedestrian at best, posting a 2.94 GAA and .907 Sv% while also being yanked three times in favor of 23-year-old Juuse Saros. Perhaps Rinne is simply going through an untimely rough patch and is due for a drastic turnaround, but there’s no doubting his obvious struggles this postseason.

Most favorable matchup for Vegas: Nashville

Special Teams

The Golden Knights have killed off 85 percent of their penalties this postseason (the best PK% of any team not named the Los Angeles Kings), but Nashville isn’t too far behind with a PK% of 84.2. Winnipeg, however, has been average at best when shorthanded, killing off just 75.0 percent of opposing power play attempts.

As evidenced by the Sharks series, though, a good penalty kill won’t always be enough to get the job done. Both the Jets (22.6) and Predators (20.6) have been solid on the power play this postseason. And while it’s hard to give one particular team the edge in this department, the Predators’ stellar play on the penalty kill, along with their scoring depth, make them a more daunting task away from 5v5.

Most favorable matchup for Vegas: Winnipeg

Coaching

None of this is new to Nashville’s Peter Laviolette or Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice, who have coached a combined 2,738 regular season and postseason games at the NHL level (well over sextuple the amount of games coached by Vegas’ Gerard Gallant).

That said, Laviolette’s postseason success cannot be ignored. The Nashville bench boss has reached the playoffs in nine out of his 14 full seasons as a head coach and even managed to win a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes back in 2006. Maurice, though successful in his own right, hasn’t won a playoff series since he took the Hurricanes to the conference final in 2009 (ironically the year after Laviolette was fired by Carolina).

Maurice and Laviolette have both put together fantastic careers, but Laviolette has regularly proven capable of taking his teams to the promised land. Maurice, as harsh as it may sound, struggles to simply guide his teams to the playoffs.

Most favorable matchup for Vegas: Winnipeg

Verdict

Vegas is fully capable of beating either one of these teams in a best-of-seven series. But if you’re hoping the Knights will end up taking on the lesser of the two teams competing in Game 7, you should probably be pulling for the Jets.

The Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason. They’re without question one of the best hockey teams in the world, if not the best. It may have taken some adversity to get them to Game 7 against Winnipeg, but there’s no doubting what they’re capable of. When it comes down to it, Nashville’s depth is nothing short of exemplary. Led by one of the better coaches in all of hockey, there’s no reason to believe Nashville can’t fight its way back to the Stanley Cup Final.

All statistics courtesy of Corsica.Hockey and Natural Stat Trick.