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5 matchups that could decide Golden Knights-Jets winner

Performance of top lines likely to determine victor in Western Conference Final

by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent

One key matchup could make the difference in the Western Conference Final between the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets, which begins with Game 1 at Bell MTS Place on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).

Here are the underlying numbers behind five pivotal areas that might decide which team will advance to the Stanley Cup Final:

 

[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

Karlsson vs. Scheifele

For the Golden Knights, the spotlight is on center William Karlsson, who broke out with 43 goals during the regular season, tying him for third in the NHL. He leads Vegas in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with four even-strength goals and two game-winners.

Karlsson is tops among Golden Knights forwards with an average of 17:06 of ice time at even strength, ranks third with 2:10 on the penalty kill, leads Vegas with 14 takeaways, and ranks third with a shot-attempt differential (SAT) of plus-44.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm3: Karlsson wins it in OT for Vegas

Center Mark Scheifele has been a breakout star for the Jets. He leads the playoffs with 11 goals, three into an empty net, and has 16 points. He leads Winnipeg forwards with an average of 17:26 of ice time at even-strength and is first on the Jets with eight drawn penalties.

Considering Karlsson and Scheifele often may be on the ice at the same time, the one who has the biggest series could have a big say in the result.

 

Marchessault vs. Wheeler

On Karlsson's left wing will be Jonathan Marchessault, who is tied with forward Reilly Smith for the Golden Knights playoff scoring lead with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 10 games. Marchessault is second on the Golden Knights to forward James Neal with 41 shots on goal and leads their forwards with an SAT of plus-47.

Marchessault is likely to spend a lot of his time matched against Jets right wing Blake Wheeler, who had an NHL career-best 91 points (23 goals, 68 assists) in 81 regular-season games. That's the most by any player in Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers history since forward Marian Hossa had 100 points (43 goals, 57 assists) in 82 games in 2006-07. In the playoffs, Wheeler is second on the Jets to Scheifele with 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in 12 games.

Video: Predicting each Conference Final series

 
Schmidt vs. Byfuglien

Defenseman Nate Schmidt leads Vegas in average ice time with 25:36 per game, including 20:01 at even strength. His 11 takeaways are second among defensemen in the playoffs to John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, who has 12.

Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien leads defensemen with 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 12 games, and his 46 hits are second to Brayden McNabb of the Golden Knights. Byfuglien's average ice time of 26:17 per game is 4:13 more than teammate Jacob Trouba (22:04), who's second on the Jets.

Video: WPG@NSH, Gm5: Byfuglien buries heavy one-timer

 

McNabb vs. Stastny

McNabb, Vegas' top shutdown defenseman, leads the Golden Knights with 31 blocked shots and leads NHL defensemen with 49 hits. He is second on Vegas to Schmidt in time on ice at even strength with 18:58 per game, and second to Deryk Engelland on the penalty kill with 3:56 per game. The Golden Knights have allowed four even-strength goals in 10 games with McNabb on the ice.

McNabb figures to spend much of his time on the ice against center Paul Stastny, who has been a difference-maker for the Jets since he was acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 26.

Playing on a line with Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, Stastny has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 12 playoff games, and his three game-winning goals are tied with forward Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning for most in the postseason.

 

Neal vs. Morrissey

Neither Vegas nor Winnipeg has players with much playoff experience, but Neal, a 30-year-old forward for the Golden Knights, could tip the scales in this matchup.

Neal has 51 points (28 goals, 23 assists) in 90 postseason games, 80 of them with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators. He has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 10 games for Vegas and leads the Golden Knights with 44 shots on goal, a shooting percentage of 6.8 percent. Based on his NHL career regular-season shooting percentage of 12.1 percent, Neal would be expected to score 5.3 goals on 44 shots. That suggests he might be due for a big series.

Winnipeg's top shutdown defenseman is Josh Morrissey, who is 23 and competing in the playoffs for the first time. He leads Winnipeg with an SAT of plus-61 and an average of 2:12 per game killing penalties. His 25 blocked shots rank second to Trouba, who has 27.

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