Series preview: Golden Knights look to ground Jets in round one
This is a series of redemption for two teams that failed to live up to expectations last year but responded by returning to the second season under new head coaches.
The Vegas Golden Knights (94 points) missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year after a lengthy collapse concluded with three consecutive shootout losses, while the Winnipeg Jets (89 points) finished eight points out of the second wildcard seed.
But this is a different year.
Despite starting five goaltenders and having to compensate for a plethora of extended injuries to key players, the Golden Knights wrapped up the 2022-23 regular season as the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time after going 51-22-9 and earning a franchise-best 111 points in the 2022-23 regular season.
The Jets (46-33-3) struggled in the second half of the year but finished strong, winning five of six before resting many of their starters in the final game of the regular season. That final stretch helped the Jets hold off the pressing Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames in the wildcard race.
This is one of the more evenly-matched first-round series, at least on paper, and is a much closer matchup than the overall seeding would indicate.
It will mark the second time these clubs meet in the postseason after a 2018 battle in the Western Conference Final that saw the Golden Knights defeat the Jets in five games en route to a Stanley Cup Final loss to the Washington Capitals.
The series-clinching goal was a deflection by Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves, but the true highlight of the series was a pair of animal-like saves by Marc-Andre Fleury, who frustrated Mark Scheifele and the Jets throughout the five-game matchup.
Neither player will suit up this time around.
In fact, only five Vegas players who appeared in the 2018 postseason will be in the lineup for Game 1, and just six remain on the team (William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, William Carrier).
The Jets have seven players from the 2018 postseason remaining on the roster, including Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry, Josh Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck.
Nate Schmidt has since switched sides, and both teams have new coaches.
The Golden Knights have added more significant assets over the last five seasons, including Mark Stone, Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo, whereas the Jets have brought in Pierre-Luc DuBois.
But these teams haven't met since the first half of the season, and two of three meetings took place in October. That makes this a relatively fresh matchup between two teams hungry for an extended run.
Anything can happen in the postseason, and both teams have much to prove.
How they got here: Golden Knights
The Golden Knights started the season 3-0-0 and 13-2-0 for the best start in franchise history. Vegas put together a stretch of nine consecutive wins through the first 15 games of the season and did not lose three in a row until Jan. 19. That marked the beginning of a rough patch for the Golden Knights, who lost seven of eight (1-5-2) leading up to the All-Star break.
But that is when everything changed.
The Golden Knights were a different team coming out of that break. Over the final three months of the season, the Golden Knights went 22-4-5, earning 49 points in 31 games. Only the Bruins and Avalanche earned more points (52), though Colorado did so in 34 games, meaning the team that recorded the best regular season in league history was the only team that had a higher points percentage in that span.
Needless to say, everything changed coming out of that break. The injuries were mounting, and with a streak of losses, the similarities to the disappointing 2021-22 crash were growing more and more striking. The Golden Knights' season began to slip away, but Vegas bounced back in a big way, going on an absolute tear to turn the season around.
Logan Thompson started just twice in that stretch, and Vegas had to use five goalies. The Golden Knights were without Stone and were missing other key players for extended periods. But Vegas lost back-to-back games only twice in 31 games, and the Golden Knights did not lose consecutive games in regulation.
Vegas acquired Ivan Barbashev, Teddy Blueger and Jonathan Quick at the deadline. All three have contributed to the Golden Knights' success, though Blueger finds himself on the outside looking in ahead of Game 1. Even so, he played an important role when Nicolas Roy was out of the lineup and gives the Golden Knights strong depth and flexibility up the middle. Barbashev has been a strong fit on multiple lines and has recorded 16 points in 23 games.
Quick was the most important deadline acquisition, however. Though his play faltered later on, he won his first four starts and won five of his first six. He had two brutal games in which he surrendered six goals on home ice but otherwise gave his team a chance to win. He came up with a clutch performance at the tail end of the March 23 game against Calgary after Thompson got hurt, forcing Quick to come off the bench in a one-goal game against a division rival. Quick made five saves, two of which were particularly noteworthy, to close out the 3-2 win in the final 6:07.
The Golden Knights finished off the best season in franchise history by not losing in regulation in April, going 5-0-2 and giving up just 12 goals in seven contests. Vegas won its final two games, a home-and-home against Seattle, by a combined score of 7-2.
How they got here: Jets
The Jets were a top team in the NHL through the first half of the season, going 32-19-1 for 65 points – good for sixth overall in the league and second in the West – through the end of January.
But it was a tale of two seasons, as the Jets were a .500 team the rest of the way (14-14-2). The only playoff team with a lower points percentage in that span was Tampa Bay (.485).
But Winnipeg won five of its last seven games (5-2-0) for a .714 points percentage, which was tied for ninth in the league. In that time, the Jets outscored their opponents 26-13.
On the season, the Jets were led by Scheifele, who scored a career-high 42 goals, as well as Connor, who led the team with 80 points in 82 games. Defenseman Morrissey had a breakout season and finished second on the club with 76 points, more than doubling his previous career high in an effort that will earn him a Norris nod. DuBois also set a career best with 63 points in 73 games, recording more than 20 goals (27) for the fourth time in his career.
However, the offense dried up down the stretch, as Scheifele led the team with just 11 goals in the final 29 games of the season after scoring 31 in 52.
The Jets acquired forwards Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov at the deadline, both of whom have made a difference with their new club. Niederreiter has 13 points in 22 games, while Namestnikov – who is currently centering the team's second line, thus allowing Scheifele to move over to wing – has recorded 10 points in 20 games.
But the most important player for the Jets – and possibly in the entire series – is Hellebuyck, who recorded 37 wins in 64 starts, going 37-25-2 with a 2.49 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and four shutouts. His 37 wins were tied for third in the NHL. He finished the season 11-8-1 with a 2.74 goals-against average, .907 save percentage and one shutout.
By the numbers
Golden Knights: 267, 3.26 per game (14th)
Jets: 246 goals, 3.00 per game (21st)
Golden Knights: 31.5 per game (15th)
Jets: 30.3 per game (21st)
Golden Knights: 20.3 percent (18th)
Jets: 19.3 percent (23rd)
Golden Knights: 225, 2.74 per game (11th)
Jets: 224, 2.73 per game (10th)
Golden Knights: 30.9 (13th)
Jets: 30.3 per game (10th)
Golden Knights: 77.4 percent (19th)
Jets: 82.4 percent (seventh)
The Golden Knights and Jets met three times in the 2022-23 regular season; Vegas came away victorious in all three meetings, with the Jets going 0-2-1. Adin Hill manned the crease for Vegas in all three games, while Hellebuyck played in the second and third meetings.
Vegas: Chandler Stephenson (1-4–5), Jack Eichel (3-1–4), Marchessault (3-1–4), Stone (3-1–4), Karlsson (2-2–4)
Winnipeg: Scheifele (3-0–3), Neal Pionk (1-2–3), Lowry (1-2–3), Morgan Barron (1-1–2), DuBois (1-1–2), Morrissey (0-2–2), Brenden Dillon (0-2–2)
Vegas: Hill (3-0-0, 2.60 GAA, .907 SV%)
Winnipeg: Hellebuyck (0-1-1, 3.40 GAA, .913 SV%); David Rittich (0-1-0, 4.23 GAA, .871 SV%)
Vegas – PP: 2-for-9 (22.2 percent), PK: 3-for-4 (75 percent)
Winnipeg – PP: 1-for-4 (25 percent), PK: 7-for-9 (77.8 percent)
Oct. 20: Golden Knights 5, Jets 2
The Golden Knights scored four goals in the first period, with Jack Eichel bookending the offensive outburst with his second and third tallies of the season. The Jets scored once in the second and made it a two-goal game at the midway point of the third period, but Vegas closed out the win and added an empty-net tally with 22 seconds remaining.
Vegas: Eichel (2, 3), Karlsson (2), Stephenson (1), Marchessault (4)
Winnipeg: DuBois (1), Pionk (3)
Oct. 30: Golden Knights 2, Jets 1 (OT)
This was one of the most memorable games of the season for the Golden Knights because of Eichel's magical finish. Hellebuyck was outstanding all night and was the only reason it was even close, as Vegas led 48-24 in shots. It came down to the wire, however, and Eichel ultimately called game with just seven seconds remaining in overtime.
Interestingly, both Hill and Hellebuyck finished with identical .958 save percentages, though Hellebuyck stopped 46 of 48, while Hill turned away 23 of 24.
Vegas: Stone (3), Eichel (4)
Winnipeg: Lowry (2)
Dec. 13: Golden Knights 6, Jets 5
Defense was thrown out the window in this one, as the two goaltenders finished with save percentages of .844 (Hellebuyck) and .853 (Hill). The two teams exploded for 11 combined goals, with Scheifele scoring a hat trick and Stone and Marchessault each lighting the lamp twice. It was a see-saw matchup that was either tied or a one-goal game until the final 2:16 of the third period when Vegas took its first two-goal lead of the night on Marchessault's second power-play goal of the frame. Though Scheifele completed his hat trick with two seconds remaining, the Golden Knights had already secured the two points.
Vegas: Daniil Miromanov (1), Stone (11, 12), Marchessault (13, 14), Karlsson (7)
Winnipeg: Scheifele (16, 17, 18), Barron (3), Gagner (4)
Vegas is 6-6-2 in the all-time regular-season matchup against the Jets.
Vegas: Karlsson (7-6–13), Smith (3-7–10), Marchessault (5-3–8), Stone (3-2–5), Shea Theodore (1-4–5), Stephenson (1-4–5)
Winnipeg: Connor (10-11–21), Scheifele (8-7–15), Wheeler (1-12–13), Morrissey (1-10–11), Ehlers (5-3–8)
Vegas: Hill (3-0-0, .907 SV%, 2.60 GAA), Laurent Brossoit (0-1-1, 5.85 GAA, .820 SV%), Thompson (0-1-0, 4.73 GAA, .806 SV%)
Winnipeg: Hellebuyck (6-2-2, 2.99 GAA, .916 SV%), Rittich (0-1-0, 4.23 GAA, .871 SV%)
Vegas – PP: 6-for-41 (14.6 percent), PK: 27-for-40 (67.5 percent)
Winnipeg – PP: 13-for-40 (32.5 percent), PK: 35-for-41 (85.4 percent)
Coming into the season, goaltending was the biggest question mark for the Golden Knights. In a way, that is still true. Vegas technically is using its third-string goalie, and the goalie tandem that shared the net from October through late February is unavailable.
However, the Golden Knights have gotten solid netminding all season, thanks in large part to Bruce Cassidy's goalie-friendly system.
While there is no official No. 1 starter, unlike in previous seasons, there is no controversy or drama. Cassidy named Laurent Brossoit as the official starter for Game 1, which comes as no surprise after Brossoit started six of the last eight games of the year.
Brossoit was Vegas' best goalie by the numbers, going 7-0-3 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He did not record a single regulation loss in 11 appearances, helping the Golden Knights accrue 17 of a possible 20 points as a starter.
He gave up four goals once – March 30 against San Jose – but otherwise limited opponents to a maximum of three, and he gave up two or fewer in six of 10 starts. He surrendered a total of four goals in his final three starts of the season with a 5-2 win against Los Angeles and back-to-back wins (4-1, 3-1) against Seattle.
Though he did not face Winnipeg this season, he played for the Jets from 2018 to 2021, going 25-19-3 with a 2.75 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and two shutouts.
Quick could see the ice in this series, depending on how things go early on. Quick finished his regular-season stint with Vegas with a 5-2-2 record and a 3.13 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and one shutout. But Quick brings a steady presence and a wealth of playoff experience to the table that the others cannot offer.
He has been a top goalie in this league for a long time and has two Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy for a super-human performance in 2012. In the Kings' first Cup in three seasons, Quick went 16-4 and recorded a 1.41 goals-against average, .946 save percentage and three shutouts. He is no longer that goalie, though he has proven in recent years that he can return to form with the game on the line.
He was fantastic when he faced the Golden Knights in the first round of the 2018 postseason, giving up just seven goals in four games. He has only appeared in the postseason once in the years since, going 3-4 with a 3.43 goals-against average, .904 save percentage and one shutout last year in a seven-game series against Edmonton.
Thompson and Hill remain out of commission but could return at some point, especially if Vegas goes on an extended run.
On the other side of the matchup, there is no confusion as to who owns the starter's gig. Hellebuyck went 37-25-2 this season, recording a 2.49 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and four shutouts. He made his first postseason appearance in the 2018 playoffs, helping his team advance to the third round before losing four of five games to the Golden Knights. However, his most recent playoff action saw him record his best career postseason numbers, going 4-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and one shutout in 2021 as the Jets swept the Oilers before Montreal returned the favor.
Hellebuyck finished the season with wins in five of his last six starts, giving up just nine goals in that stretch; he surrendered three or fewer goals in every game over the last month (March 11 through April 11) and finished the season tied for third in wins with 37; ironically, that's the most wins he has recorded since the 2017-18 season.
Simply put, the Jets will go as far as Hellebuyck takes them.
The Golden Knights are getting two key players back in the lineup ahead of Game 1. The first is particularly significant, as Stone will return to action after missing three months. The Vegas captain was activated off long-term injured reserve on Monday and is slated to skate on the club's third line and top power-play unit.
Vegas also expects to have the services of Zach Whitecloud on the back end, giving the Golden Knights the advantage of a healthy – or at least complete – blue line.
Goaltenders Thompson and Hill remain out of commission, and Carrier is skating but not ready to return. Pavel Dorofeyev, Paul Cotter, Blueger and Ben Hutton are expected to serve as healthy scratches in Game 1.
For the Jets, the biggest question mark surrounds winger Ehlers, who was on the receiving end of a cheap shot last week against the Minnesota Wild. The hit, which knocked Ehlers out of the game and forced him to miss the final game of the season, earned Ryan Hartman a one-game suspension. Ehlers has cleared concussion protocol and participated in Monday's practice, but his status for Game 1 remains unclear; he is considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Ehlers missed nearly half of the 2022-23 campaign but produced 38 points in 45 games this season.
Cole Perfetti has not played since Feb. 19 and is another key piece for the Jets up front. He recently began skating on his own, and it's possible he may return at some point this series.
Sam Gagner also is out with an injury, and Kevin Stenlund is questionable for Game 1 after missing Monday's practice.
Keys to the series
The Golden Knights went 38-5-3 when scoring first this season, good for a win percentage of .826, which trailed only Boston in the NHL rankings.
Over the final six weeks of the regular season, Vegas scored first in 17 of 22 games and won 15 of them (15-1-1). In the five games in which Vegas surrendered the opening goal, the Golden Knights won only once. Vegas' 1-2-2 record when falling behind 1-0 equates to a .200 win percentage, which was the lowest among all playoff teams in that stretch.
Scoring first did not play nearly as significant a role for the Jets this season. Winnipeg went 31-10-2 when scoring first and 15-23-1 when giving up the first goal. However, the Jets had the sixth-best win percentage when trailing 1-0 (.385), and they managed a win percentage of .357 in the final six weeks of the season, good for 12th overall.
In addition to the fact that Vegas has excelled when scoring first, giving Hellebuyck a lead is a dangerous game to play. That makes the race to lighting the lamp a critical factor for the Golden Knights.
Stick to the game plan
The Golden Knights can't afford to get away from what has worked for them all season. They need to sit back and play strong defense, getting in shooting lanes, blocking shots, forcing the Jets to keep to the perimeter and helping the goaltender clear pucks. Vegas led the NHL in blocked shots (1,494) and had the two top shot-blockers in Alec Martinez (244) and McNabb (198).
But another aspect of playing a strong structural defensive game is the need to be patient and wait to capitalize on chances. The Golden Knights excel on the rush, and the Jets allow quite a few chances in transition. Vegas needs to wait for its chances, strike when the opportunity presents itself and try to catch Winnipeg out off guard. Beating Hellebuyck consistently will be a difficult task for the Golden Knights, so capitalizing on high-danger scoring chances will be especially key. It's unlikely that Hellebuyck will surrender goals on low-danger shots, but Vegas needs to crowd the net-front, get pucks to the net and try to wreak havoc.
Neither team had a particularly strong power play during the regular season, but Winnipeg saw a spike in conversion in the final few weeks, operating at 21.1 percent in its last six games. Regardless of the team's power play performance this season, the Jets have strong numbers in the all-time matchup and have enough talent to make the most of an unforced error. The Golden Knights gave up four power-play goals in the final six games of the regular season and need to prevent special teams from dictating this series.
Stone: The Golden Knights' captain has been out since Jan. 12 and underwent his second back surgery in under a year. He has missed three months and only recently returned to practice. It remains to be seen how long it will take him to get up to game speed, but he can significantly improve Vegas' chances if that timeline is reasonable. Stone is one of the most dominant two-way forwards in the game, was having the best season of his career before getting hurt and is a game-changer capable of putting this team on his back.
Eichel: Notably, Game 1 will mark the first playoff game of Eichel's NHL career. He failed to reach the postseason throughout his tenure in Buffalo and was on the wrong side of the divider once again in his first year in the desert. But he led the Golden Knights in scoring this season with 66 points and demonstrated on numerous occasions that he has the skill, vision and mentality to provide game-breaking contributions. He showed it against the Jets earlier this season when he single-handedly took over and won the game for Vegas in the waning seconds of overtime. He has been a clutch player throughout the season, gives Vegas center depth it has never had in four previous postseason appearances and will be eager to prove himself in his first true bid for Lord Stanley's Cup.
Whether or not he can do so remains unclear.
It helps having Stone back in the lineup, as his presence will take some pressure off Eichel's shoulders. Also, the fact that Vegas has players like Martinez and Pietrangelo – who know what it takes to win the Stanley Cup and have played essential roles for their teams when doing so – will make life easier for Vegas' top center, who finished the season on a nine-game point streak (one goal, 12 points). There may be some nerves early on, but Eichel has what it takes to thrive in this environment; there may not be as much room for him on the ice, but elite players make something out of nothing, and there will be ample opportunity for Eichel to shine.
Goaltending: Regardless of how well the Golden Knights goaltenders performed this season, none of them are proven starters. Quick is the exception, though he did not perform like one earlier this season with Los Angeles, going 11-13-4 in 27 starts and posting a 3.50 goals-against average, .876 save percentage and one shutout.
That being said, Brossoit and Quick as well as Thompson and Hill – should they return – have shown an ability to do enough to give the Golden Knights a chance to win. If Vegas sticks to its game plan, suppresses shots and high-danger chances and helps the goalie see pucks and discard rebounds, it will be a lot easier for the man in the crease.
No matter how well they played this season, the playoffs are a different animal, and playing on the road in Winnipeg will be a challenge. Brossoit has the advantage of knowing the building and fanbase well, but the importance of every shift is magnified in the stifling environment of playoff hockey, which can test the resolve of even the most stable goaltender. Going up against the rock-solid Hellebuyck, who has a 2.46 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and three shutouts in 35 career postseason starts, makes matters even more complicated.
Chandler Stephenson: Regardless of where he slots in, Stephenson is a threat every time he's on the ice, and he could play an underrated role in the Golden Knights' quest for the Stanley Cup. He may not be the flashiest player, but he's coming off a career-high 65-point campaign, has won a Stanley Cup and possesses elite speed that allows him to play on another level. He's reliable in all three zones and gives the Golden Knights true depth as the third-line center. His familiarity and chemistry with Stone could prove to be a game-changer for Vegas, and his versatility gives Cassidy plenty of flexibility if line changes need to be made in-game or between contests. Stephenson's speed, vision and game-breaking ability make him an under-the-radar X-factor for Vegas, and the Golden Knights need him to keep producing after he finished the regular season with points in seven out of his last eight games (three goals, 10 points).
Hellebuyck: Hellebuyck has the capability to win a series for his team, and he could shut down – and frustrate – Vegas' high-flying offense. Just how difficult his job will be depends on a few things, including Vegas' neutral-zone play and the Jets' offensive output. But no matter what, he could make or break this series more than any other player. The former Vezina winner has a 6-2-2 all-time record against the Golden Knights in the regular season and won one of five games in the 2018 third-round matchup despite his best efforts. Fleury was lights-out for the Golden Knights in that series; as well as Brossoit has played this year, the Golden Knights can't rely on goaltending to carry them into the second round. The Jets, who have the clear advantage in net, just might be able to if Hellebuyck catches fire.
Connor/Scheifele: Connor and Scheifele led all Jets forwards in scoring with 80 and 68 points, respectively, and Scheifele led the team with a career-high 42 goals. However, the Jets' offense dried up down the stretch. There was a decrease in production from the top players in the lineup, and the Jets' offense begins and ends with this duo. Connor's shooting percentage was down after the All-Star break, and Scheifele scored just 11 goals in the final 29 games of the season (which led the team). If these two heat up, that could make Winnipeg a frightening adversary, especially considering Hellebuyck's ability to hold onto a lead.
The Golden Knights have to play a steady, responsible and nuanced game against a Jets team that is just waiting to break out offensively. The Golden Knights have to show up for 60 minutes, and everyone throughout the lineup needs to contribute in some way.
The Golden Knights are a deeper team on paper both offensively and defensively, but Winnipeg has the clear edge in net. At the end of the day, however, all bets are off once the puck drops. Anyone can step up, and anything can happen. The Golden Knights have a chance to go on a deep run, but if they wish to be successful, they need to take things one one game, one period and one shift at a time.
Ivan Barbashev – Jack Eichel – Jonathan Marchessault
Reilly Smith – William Karlsson – Phil Kessel
Michael Amadio – Chandler Stephenson – Mark Stone
Brett Howden – Nicolas Roy – Keegan Kolesar
Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb – Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague – Zach Whitecloud
Kyle Connor – Pierre-Luc DuBois – Mark Scheifele
Nikolaj Ehlers – Vladislav Namestnikov – Blake Wheeler
Nino Niederreiter – Adam Lowry – Mason Appleton
Morgan Barron – David Gustafsson – Saku Maenalanen
Josh Morrissey – Dylan DeMelo
Brenden Dillon – Neal Pionk
Dylan Samberg – Nate Schmidt
How to watch Game 1
Game 1: Golden Knights vs. Jets
When: 6:30 p.m. PT
Where: T-Mobile Arena – Las Vegas, NV
TV: ESPN 2, AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM