The Winnipeg Jets are facing off against the Vegas Golden Knights with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line. While both of these teams have made it this far, they have taken two very different paths.
The Golden Knights swept the Kings and only lost two games to the Sharks. It is fair to say that Vegas has not really been tested up until this point in the playoffs. Winnipeg started similarly with a relatively easy series win against the Wild but ran into a very good Predators team in the second round. The Jets had to play all seven games to move on to the conference finals while the Golden Knights had already punched their ticket four days earlier.
Even though both of these teams arrived in the conference finals in different ways, they are both deserving of their spot and are peaking at the right time.
We know both of these teams are good, but which team has the edge? This tale of the tape will provide a quick primer to the series and give an advantage one way or the other in multiple categories.
The offensive side of the game might be where these two teams are the most similar. Both clubs thrive off the rush by utilizing great speed through the neutral zone and creating odd man rushes with their skating ability. The Jets have a slight advantage in goals as they scored 273 on the year compared to Vegas’ 268. When diving further into the numbers, it’s almost scary how similar these teams are. Both of them have elite scoring ability with one player with over forty goals. Karlsson ended the year with 43 goals, one back of Laine who had 44.
As for players who scored over thirty goals, the Jets claim the only one with Connor scoring 31 on the year. Looking at the depth doesn’t give an edge to either team as both teams had five players score over 20 goals on the year. Looking even further, the Golden Knights had nine players with over ten goals while the Jets had eight.
The numbers are so close between these two rosters, but the history of the Jets forwards push them over the edge by a slight margin. Scheifele, Wheeler, Stastny, and Perreault have all been scoring at very high levels for a number of seasons. Most of the Golden Knights forwards have little or no history of scoring at such a high rate. This experience and consistency is what gives Winnipeg a small advantage over Vegas.
The Winnipeg Jets defenders go from the underdog to the favourite in short order. Most experts would agree that Nashville has one of the best, if not the best, defense pairings in the entire NHL. Their top four is extremely strong and have the edge against virtually anyone they play against. This series will be very different as Vegas does not have the same high end ability.
The Jets easily have the best defensemen in the series with Dustin Byfuglien. Byfuglien is such a unique player with a blend of size, skill, and speed that nobody can match up against.
Nate Schmidt is the Golden Knights best defensemen and he can do it all. He finished the year with 5 goals and 31 assists and only had 16 penalty minutes. He can play defensive but can also join the rush. While Schmidt is blossoming into a top defensemen, he is nowhere near the level of Byfuglien at this point in time.
As for the depth of both teams, it is fairly even. The Golden Knights have five defensemen averaging over 20 minutes in the playoffs while the Jets only have three. Vegas can spread the minutes because there is not a big gap between their top and bottom pairings unlike the Jets.
Looking at the number of goals allowed in the regular season, the Jets finished fifth in the league by allowing only 216 goals. Once again, Vegas is not far behind as they allowed 225 goals.
Vegas might have the better depth on their roster with everybody getting their fair share of minutes, but the top four of the Jets is clearly better than the Golden Knights. With Trouba/Morrissey and Byfuglien/Enstrom eating up huge minutes every game, the Jets definitely have the advantage.
The edge has gone to Winnipeg in both the offensive and defensive categories, so it follows that the Jets would have the advantage on special teams as well. Looking at the numbers though, it might be closer than it initially appears.
Once again these two teams are so similar to each other with their season stats. The Jets finished fifth in the league with a PP% of 23.4%. The Golden Knights were 11th and had a PP% of 21.4%.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Jets have a PP% of 25.0% while Vegas is only scoring on 17.5% of their opportunities.
As for the penalty kill, these teams were right next to each other with the Jets finishing tied for 7th at 81.8% and the Golden Knights finishing tied for 10th at 81.4%. In the playoffs these numbers are drastically different as the Golden Knights have a sparkling 85% PK while the Jets struggled against Subban and the Preds and are only killing penalties at a rate of 74.2%.
The Jets special teams did not look great against the Predators but they do have the advantage given the numbers over the course of the season. The last thing to note is that Vegas had the second least amount of penalty minutes all year. They finished the season with 560 PIM while the Jets had a whopping 137 more with 697 PIM.
If the edge was awarded strictly on the season performance the Jets would take it. However, Vegas has dominated on the PK in the playoffs so far and the Jets have struggled at times even though their power play percentage remains strong. This one is too close to call as each team seems to have their own strengths.
The goaltending matchup in this series will be fun to watch. Marc-Andre Fleury is a goaltending legend who was won the Stanley Cup multiple times, and also has an Olympic Gold medal. Fleury has been the model of consistency for a number of years as he has played over 700 games and has a career save percentage of .914. When looking at playoff experience the contrast between Fleury and Hellebuyck is staggering. Since Fleury has joined the NHL in the 2003-2004 season no player has won more playoff games than Fleury has. In 123 playoff appearances Fleury has 70 wins. Only Lundqvist comes close as he has 61 wins in 128 games during the same span. As for Hellebuyck, he is playing in his first playoffs and has 8 wins in 12 games. Although Hellebuyck was also highly touted prospect like Fleury was, he has nowhere near the same experience or track record that Fleury possesses.
Looking at their stats from the regular season, both of these netminders had similar stats. Fleury was hurt for almost half the season as he only played 46 games. In the games that he did play, he was excellent. He had a .927 save percentage and a 2.24 GAA. This .927 save percentage was 4th among goalies who played at least 30 games. Looking down that list, Hellebuyck is not far behind. Hellebuyck finished the year with a .924 save percentage which puts him seventh among that same group of netminders. Hellebuyck also had 2.36 GAA which put him 6th in the league in that regard. Lastly, Hellebuyck finished the season with 44 wins, which tied him for first in the entire NHL with Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay.
While these two goalies have very similar stats in the regular season, it’s the playoffs that is setting Fleury apart. Fleury is spouting a great 8-2 record in these playoffs with an outstounding .951 save percentage and a ridiculous 1.53 GAA. Hellebuyck has been very good as well with a .927 SV% and 2.25 GAA but is nowhere near Fleury’s eye-popping numbers.
Fleury gets the edge in this matchup due to his experience and exceptional play over first two rounds of the playoffs.
There are a few things to consider when looking at intangibles. The first one is the health of each club. Considering this is the third round of the playoffs, both teams are remarkably healthy. The Jets had Armia and Perreault return after getting hurt in round one. Vegas has most of their lineup intact as well.
Both teams are healthy, so what else is there?
Looking at a potential home ice advantage, it would have to go very slightly to the Jets. Winnipeg had the best home record in the league at 32-7-2. Vegas was excellent at home as well with a record of 29-10-2. These teams are both healthy and have similar records at home so there must be something else that sets one of them apart.
The last thing to look at regarding intangibles is the mindset of the teams. Vegas has been proving everybody wrong all season as most people predicted them to finish near the bottom of the league and nowhere near playoff contention. Once they started winning games, everyone said their streak wouldn’t last. It did last and it brought them first place in the division. Then, when the playoffs began, everyone wrote them off again because they seemingly had to eventually hit a rough patch. They have not hit any sort of rough patch thus far and have silenced the critics repeatedly throughout the year. Not only has the team far exceeded their expectations, but each player is playing with a sense of pride. They were specifically not protected by their previous team and that is providing some extra motivation to prove their former management wrong. This mentality is what got Vegas this far, and it’s only a matter of time before the skeptics realize how good this team actually is.
While most of these intangible categories are close, Vegas gets the edge for embracing their underdog role and proving people wrong at every point during the year.