Jets make Vegas look like expansion team

No place to hide in Game 1 of Western Conference Final

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Let’s get one thing straight: the two best teams in the conference had already played against each other long before they dropped the puck at Bell MTS Place on Saturday night for Game 1 of the Western Conference final between the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/05/2018 (1560 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Let’s get one thing straight: the two best teams in the conference had already played against each other long before they dropped the puck at Bell MTS Place on Saturday night for Game 1 of the Western Conference final between the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.

We know it, anyone who watched the Jets defeat the Nashville Predators in an epic seven-game series knows it and, yes, seeing as you asked, so do the Vegas Golden Knights.

“It’s probably true,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault conceded on Friday.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS Jets forward Paul Stastny celebrates Mark Scheifele’s goal on Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-André Fleury in NHL Western Conference Final action on Saturday night.

And then on Saturday, Marchessault and his Vegas teammates removed any remaining doubt.

This one wasn’t really even close and neither, frankly, were the Knights. The Jets were up 1-0 before the game was two minutes old, 2-0 before the clock had hit the seven-minute mark and 3-0 before the two teams had played even one-half of the first period of the first game.

After an epic series against the Nashville Predators that required seven games and everything the Jets had, Winnipeg outclassed their opponent on a night the game was over early and never in doubt.

And so, let the record show that after defying expectations all season long, the Vegas Golden Knights finally lived up to them in the first game of the third round of their first season in the NHL.

For the first time all season, the Jets had Vegas looking like exactly what they are: an expansion team. The Vegas goaltending was sub-par behind a shaky Marc-André Fleury; the Knights had no answer for Dustin Byfuglien, or, for that matter, Mark Scheifele or Blake Wheeler — a Jets trio that combined for seven points; and the Vegas forwards — a ragtag bunch of league castoffs who somehow morphed into an elite group this season — morphed back into a bunch of castoffs on a night they were unable to generate much in the way of offence and even less in the way of finish.

Throw in a lousy Vegas penalty kill that led to two of Winnipeg’s four goals, and by the conclusion of a 4-2 Jets victory — the score of which flattered the losers — you couldn’t help but wonder whether this Western Conference Final is going to be nothing like the Jets-Predators series that preceded it, which is to say not competitive, not played on an edge and not played to the limit.

It speaks volumes about the level this Jets team is operating on right now that with less than 48 hours to rest and prepare for this series after a bitter, exhausting and debilitating series against the Predators, it was Winnipeg which had all the jump off the opening face-off in Game 1, while Vegas — which came in off five days of rest — looked like they were wearing ankle weights.

If ever Vegas was going to steal one in a Whiteout, you would’ve thought it would have been this one, facing a Jets team that was exhausted — mentally, emotionally and physically — after a Game 7 win in Nashville Thursday night that was nothing less than the biggest win in franchise history.

And so, put it all together and it’s hard to see how any of this gets easier from here for Vegas against a Jets team that, let’s face it, has already beaten the toughest opponent they are likely to face in these 2017-18 Stanley Cup playoffs.

They will, of course, play the rest of this conference final. And I must, at this point, insert the customary caveat about how anything can happen in playoff hockey.

Those possibilities would have to include, one supposes, even a Vegas victory or two over the Jets in this series. But, if you can envision a scenario in which Vegas somehow takes four wins off a Jets team that simply imposed their will on the Knights on Saturday night, you were watching a different game than I was.

They say you never feel more alive than after a near-death experience, and you have to wonder whether when this season finally does come to an end for the Jets, that near-death experience in Nashville on Thursday night turns out to be the moment it all came together for this remarkable team.

It sure looked like it Saturday night. Scheifele — with his league-leading 12th goal of these playoffs and an assist — was superb. Byfuglien — with a goal of his own and an assist — continues to be the most dynamic player on the ice for either team.

And then there is the captain, Wheeler, who added three more assists and now has a league-leading 15 as he continues to lead this Jets team in the only way that really matters — by example.

This is a huge stage this Jets team is on right now, and this young team seems to be flourishing on it.

Don Cherry was in the house Saturday night, which tells you the whole country is watching right now. And so, too, was Bobby Hull, a bunch of other Jets alumni, most of the national hockey media and more than 15,000 fans, not to mention another 25,000 outside, some of whom had paid as much as a hundred bucks to scalpers to get one of the limited number of street-party tickets that the city had given away for free.

You know we’ve changed as a city when Winnipeggers, a notoriously frugal bunch, are paying something for nothing instead of nothing for something, which is the more usual course in these parts.

And the Jets? Well, they’ve changed, too. Remember when the big lingering question about these Jets was how would such a young team with so little playoff experience respond to the pressure and spotlight of playoff hockey? Well, we have the answer now — they’re thriving in it.

And with Game 2 looming Monday night at Bell MTS Place, it’s Vegas that now needs to provide some answers — and quickly — or their Cinderella story will be coming to an unhappy conclusion just as Winnipeg’s heads for a final dramatic chapter.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek

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