August 15, 2018

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What were the odds of that?

Two teams that hoped to make the playoffs are halfway to the promised land - and nobody wants to go home yet

Winnipeg Jets players celebrate a goal against the Nashville Predators late in Game 7 of their second-round series, Thursday. The Jets had exactly zero playoff wins at the start of the 2018 post-season and after 12 games are now just 8 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

(AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY)

Winnipeg Jets players celebrate a goal against the Nashville Predators late in Game 7 of their second-round series, Thursday. The Jets had exactly zero playoff wins at the start of the 2018 post-season and after 12 games are now just 8 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

It is, without a doubt, the most unlikely Western Conference final in the history of the NHL.

That was already going to be true when one of the participants is a team that didn't even exist a year ago, an expansion franchise comprised of cast-offs from 30 other organizations. Not only did the Vegas Golden Knights blow away even the most optimistic expectations, they made a mockery of the long-held belief that it takes plenty of time and patience to build a winner.

Then throw in the Winnipeg Jets, who had a grand total of zero playoff wins in their own history entering play this spring, and you have a battle nobody saw coming. As hard as it might be to believe, one of these teams is going to the Stanley Cup final.

The casual observer might look at this as a matchup between overachieving teams simply happy to be here and playing with house money, so to speak. But that's not the message coming from players and coaches.

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It is, without a doubt, the most unlikely Western Conference final in the history of the NHL.

That was already going to be true when one of the participants is a team that didn't even exist a year ago, an expansion franchise comprised of cast-offs from 30 other organizations. Not only did the Vegas Golden Knights blow away even the most optimistic expectations, they made a mockery of the long-held belief that it takes plenty of time and patience to build a winner.

Then throw in the Winnipeg Jets, who had a grand total of zero playoff wins in their own history entering play this spring, and you have a battle nobody saw coming. As hard as it might be to believe, one of these teams is going to the Stanley Cup final.

The casual observer might look at this as a matchup between overachieving teams simply happy to be here and playing with house money, so to speak. But that's not the message coming from players and coaches.

They expected to get this far. And they'll be awfully disappointed if they don't accomplish their ultimate goal.

Vegas Golden Knights players celebrate after winning their second-round series over the San Jose Sharks. The Knights success this season has left many NHL observers in complete shock.</p>

(AP PHOTO/MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ)

Vegas Golden Knights players celebrate after winning their second-round series over the San Jose Sharks. The Knights success this season has left many NHL observers in complete shock.

"We’re here to win a Stanley Cup and we haven’t achieved anything yet. We all want to continue playing hockey," Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said Friday.

Winnipeg finished second overall in the NHL regular-season with a 52-20-10 record, dispatched Minnesota in five games and then beat No. 1-ranked Nashville in an epic seven-game series which included winning three road wins.

A young and rather inexperienced team when this run began, sophomore sniper Patrik Laine said they've learned some valuable lessons along the way.

"We knew we didn’t have a lot of experience from the playoffs, but we showed that during the regular season that we have a really good team and a lot of young players who’ve played in the big games before. Obviously, not in the NHL playoffs. I think everybody has just been excited to play hockey and playoff hockey and just try to improve their game from the regular season. I think everybody’s done a really good job of that," he said.

Vegas finished fifth overall at 51-24-7 and cruised to the Pacific Division title. They blew through Los Angeles in four games in the first round, then stormed past San Jose in six games. Thoughts of this Cinderella story coming to a screeching halt once the post-season began were quickly laid to waste.

"I think all of us going into the season, just like every other team, had a goal of making the playoffs. I think every guy had that goal. That’s what you play for all 82 games. I think, halfway through the season when you’re on top of the division, you maybe sit back and say obviously things are for real, and we’ve got a good shot at doing some damage this year," Vegas defenceman Deryk Engelland said Friday.

So here we are, teams who had a combined zero playoff wins in their history a month ago, but are now each halfway to the promised land.

There's no shortage of compelling storylines to watch for over the next couple weeks.

FLEURY VS HELLEBUYCK:

<p>Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is a Vezina candidate thanks to his stellar regular season play and his success in the playoffs can only strengthen his chances.</p>

(AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY)

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is a Vezina candidate thanks to his stellar regular season play and his success in the playoffs can only strengthen his chances.

Both goalies are cornerstones of their team's success. Hellebuyck is a Vezina Trophy nominee who hasn't wilted under the playoff spotlight, going 8-4 with a sparkling 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage. Veteran Marc-Andre Fleury has been even better, going 8-2 with a 1.53 GAA and .951 save percentage. The three-time Stanley Cup winner has found new life in Vegas after being cut loose by the Pittsburgh Penguins

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has had sparkling numbers this playoffs.

(AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER, FILE)

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has had sparkling numbers this playoffs.

"At the end of the day, it’s just a hockey game. I don’t think experience changes that. I’m going to go out and play the same way I’ve been playing all year. I’m going to focus on my game and my details and let the rest fall into place," Hellebuyck said Friday when asked about going up against someone with Fleury's pedigree.

Fleury said he expects a huge challenge from the Jets, who can bring the offence in waves led by the top line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor.

"I think that is a general truth in every game of hockey ever played at the end of the day. There is enough offence by both teams, both teams score enough goals, that the pressure will be on the guys in the nets. As usual," Jets coach Paul Maurice said Friday.

BEST VS BEST:

The Winnipeg Jets' top line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler has 39 points in 12 playoff games this post-season.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Winnipeg Jets' top line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler has 39 points in 12 playoff games this post-season.

Yes, the Jets top trio is flying high, combining for 16 goals and 23 assists through a dozen playoff games. But Vegas also boasts one of the best lines in all of hockey, with William Karlsson between Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Those three have nine goals and 23 assists in 10 playoff games.

"I think they do a little bit of a combination of offence and they seem to play against the other team's best players, too, especially at home. They're a great mix of responsibility, play hard underneath the puck and they can make some pretty dynamic plays," Wheeler said.

Vegas Golden Knights line mates William Karlsson, left, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith present a challenge for the Jets, combining solid defensive play with the capability to score often.

CP

Vegas Golden Knights line mates William Karlsson, left, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith present a challenge for the Jets, combining solid defensive play with the capability to score often.

"I think all three of those guys can put the puck in the net. Real explosive so far throughout the playoffs so they're playing real well. Obviously, it's going to be a key matchup for us. Players like that, and a line like that that's playing really well, it's tough to just all together eliminate them. You want to try to contain them as much as you can."

Expect Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba to be out as much as possible against that line, at least when Maurice has last change in Winnipeg.

"I think whoever we face as a line, our game doesn’t change. We want to take care of our own D zone, play the right way, pressure the D. They’re very good D, but it’s nothing our line can’t handle," Marchessault said Friday.

Scheifele leads the NHL with 11 playoff goals and is hoping to carry momentum over from the Nashville series, while downplaying his individual accomplishments so far.

"At the end of the day, it’s not about a personal game at all. It’s all about winning games, it’s all about that extra blocked shot, that extra hit, a good stick in the neutral zone, whatever that is," he said. "We lay it all on the line each and every night. That’s what it’s all about. It’s never about personal accomplishments in playoffs."

HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE:

<p>Winnipeg Jets Fans celebrate the final countdown as the Winnipeg Jets defeat the the Nashville Predators Thursday evening.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets Fans celebrate the final countdown as the Winnipeg Jets defeat the the Nashville Predators Thursday evening.

Bell MTS Place was the toughest rink for visitors during the regular-season, and T-Mobile Arena was right up there as well. Winnipeg had rattled off 13 straight victories on home ice after their Game 3 victory against Nashville, but have dropped the last two. They'll look to get back on track before the Whiteout starting Saturday night.

"It's huge. Obviously, Canada is an unbelievable hockey market and especially our fans in Winnipeg. They're very passionate about our team and about hockey. It feels good to be a Canadian team to go this far," said Scheifele.

"We're real comfortable in this building. We'll continue to play with confidence in here. Obviously you want to protect your home ice, so we'd like to get off to a good start in the series," added Wheeler.

REST VS MOMENTUM:

Winnipeg had very little time to savour the Game 7 victory over Nashville, travelling back home in the wee hours Friday and then re-convening at the rink hours later to begin planning for Vegas.

"I think you approach this as you approach all the games we've played so far in the playoffs. You know, it's a little bit of an adjustment because you're playing a different team," said Wheeler. "I think we just played a big game and they're only getting bigger from here on out. So I think you want to try and do a lot of the same things that we did (Thursday) night in Nashville and have a good first period, get a good start. But you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Just carry a lot of that excitement we had (Thursday) night into Game 1."

The Golden Knights wrapped up their series last Sunday, so they should be plenty rested. Will that lead to any rust?

"Obviously they have home advantage here. They’re going to get energy from the crowd. It’s a tough building to come into. But for us, it’s been I think six days we didn’t play. We’ve got to get our legs going right off the bat, have a good start. After the first period I think we’ll be fine and we’ll keep going," said Marchessault.

THE ROLE PLAYERS:

Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault provide invaluable depth to the Jets' third line.

(AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY)

Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault provide invaluable depth to the Jets' third line.

Depth is always a huge factor in playoff success, and perhaps this is where the Jets might have a distinct advantage over Vegas. Winnipeg would love to get Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers cooking on that second line with Paul Stastny, while contributions from the likes of Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault and Joel Armia would be most welcome. The checking trio of Adam Lowry, Brandon Tanev and Andrew Copp has also shown flashes of offence throughout the year.

Vegas doesn't have quite the same level of secondary scoring as Winnipeg, but players such as James Neal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula and Cody Eakin all had strong seasons and have continued that into the playoffs.

"I think they’re a really good team. They’re coached well, they’re strong right to the core, they have four good lines and solid defence and a really good goalie," Hellebuyck said. "To say anything is going to come easy is completely wrong. This is going to be a dogfight right to the end. I know those guys are going to be fighting their way back, too."

SPEED TO BURN:

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal suggests the series with the Jets could turn into a track meet.

CP

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal suggests the series with the Jets could turn into a track meet.

Don't expect a turtle derby to break out — both these teams have plenty of wheels.

"They're fast. They play the game extremely fast. In the NHL today, that's what teams are trying to get to. They're trying to play the game fast. That's what we preach. So I think there's a lot of similarities in that. We both try to play the game in a similar fashion, real uptempo, we try to force the other team into our game," said Wheeler.

Neal said Friday this series could turn into a track meet at times.

"I’m sure that could happen at some point. We’ve both got quick teams and both like to be on the offence. You turn the puck over, that’s going to happen sometimes. You’ve got be aware of what you’re doing and aware of who you’re on the ice with," he said.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Teams will want to stay out of the penalty box — because the power plays in this series could be potent.

Winnipeg was fifth-best in the regular-season with a 23.4 per cent efficiency, and have been even better in the playoffs by clicking at 25 per cent. Vegas was ninth-best in the regular-season at 21.4 per cent, and are running just under that in the playoffs so far at 17.5 per cent.

"They’ve been good on the power play also, getting a lot of points there. Staying out of the box is probably the main thing so we don’t give them too many opportunities on the power play. For the game, if we keep playing well as a team, doing what the coach wants us to, with some speed and doing everybody doing their job in our zone, we should be in good shape," said Fleury.

Winnipeg had the seventh-best penalty killing in the regular-season at 81.8 per cent but have struggled a bit so far in the post-season at 74.2 per cent. Vegas had the 10th-best penalty killing in the regular-season at 81.4 per cent and are a stellar 85 per cent so far in the playoffs.

GALLANT VS MAURICE:

Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, above, and Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice have shown an appropriate amount of respect for each other's clubs.

AP PHOTO/DAVID BECKER

Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, above, and Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice have shown an appropriate amount of respect for each other's clubs.

There's plenty of mutual respect between the two bench bosses, who will match strategy and wits throughout the series. On Friday, both had plenty of praise for their opponent.

"They've had a great season, obviously. They've been outstanding all year long. Good hockey team. Looking forward to a good series with them. It's going to be a great battle," said Gerard Gallant. "I expect it to be real fast, real quick, two real competitive teams. It should be a great series. I said that in the L.A. series and the San Jose series. But I truly believe they're a big, heavy team that plays real fast. I think we're the same way. We play real quick, real fast."

Maurice said Vegas is the real deal, despite being a first-year franchise.

"Well, the 109 points tells you how good they were. Specifically, outstanding transition and speed. How they move the puck from their end in straight lines. And they’ll make plays off that rush. It’s going to be a very fast, speed-based series. There will be contact for sure in the zones, but that won’t be the story. The team that defends, I think, the best through the neutral zone and attacks simply through the neutral zone will have the best chance to win," he said.

Vegas Golden Knights Logo

82

51 - 24 - 7

109

47

.665

268

225

3.27

2.74

21.4

81.4

32.8

30.7

48.9

GPGames Played

RECORDWins, Losses, and Overtime losses

POINTSTwo points per win, one point per overtime or shootout loss

ROWCombined regular and overtime (non-shootout) wins

P%Percentage of maximum total points earned

GFTotal goals for

GATotal goals against

GF/GPAverage goals for per game

GA/GPAverage goals against per game

PP%Successful power play percentage

PK%Successful penalty killing percentage

SHOTS/GPAverage shots taken per game

SA/GPAverage shots against per game

FOW%Percentage of faceoffs won

Winnipeg Jets Logo

82

52 - 20 - 10

114

48

.695

273

216

3.33

2.63

23.4

81.8

32.2

31.9

52.4

HISTORY AN INDICATOR?

There was little to take away from their three head-to-head meetings during the regular-season. Vegas won the first meeting in November, a 5-2 decision on home ice. Winnipeg won the rematch a month later by a 7-4 score at Bell MTS Place. And then Vegas took the rubber match in early February with a 3-2 overtime victory in Winnipeg.

"I don’t think we ever approached them as an expansion team. Certainly not now. It’s unique because it’s the first year of this team but it’s not like these are all new players in the NHL. These are all established players, coming into the playoffs, I mean, that team had quite a bit more playoff experience then our team so I think with how they started the season… nobody was taking them for granted. Nobody’s was treating them like an off night," said Wheeler.

"They’ve had a heckuva season. Just watching them in the playoffs, it’s not a fluke. It’s not a Cinderella. They’re for real. So it’s going to be a real tough matchup."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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History

Updated on Friday, May 11, 2018 at 9:12 PM CDT: Adds thumbnail

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