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Conference Final

Jets vs. Golden Knights playoff preview

Winnipeg counting on Scheifele, Wheeler; Vegas relying on Fleury, top line

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

Winnipeg Jets vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Jets: 8-4 (defeated Minnesota Wild 4-1 in first round, Nashville Predators 4-3 in second round)

Golden Knights: 8-2 (defeated Los Angeles Kings 4-0 in first round, San Jose Sharks 4-2 in second round)

Season series: WPG 1-1-1; VGK 2-1-0

 

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

 

The skinny

New blood has found its way to the Western Conference Final.

The two newest teams in the conference, the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights, will play in the best-of-7 series that begins at Bell MTS Place on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).

This is the first conference final in Jets franchise history; they entered the NHL as the Atlanta Thrashers for the 1999-2000 season, relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, and moved from the Eastern Conference for 2013-14.

The Golden Knights, in their inaugural season, continue to make history. Their 8-2 record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the best by any NHL team in its first 10 postseason games.

"If you watch a lot of hockey, they've played the game that they're playing now right from the get-go," Jets coach Paul Maurice said of the Golden Knights. "It wasn't a team that got hot in the last month to make the playoffs.

"They've been good right from the start straight through, and if you're new to the NHL but a longtime hockey fan and you turned on the TV and didn't know that was an expansion team, you wouldn't have thought it was."

However, this is the first time the Golden Knights will not have home-ice advantage.

"We have no issue with it," Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. "We played 41 road games during the season and had a real good record (22-14-5) and we have had a great road record in the playoffs so far (4-1). They have home ice, so we'll go in there and, hopefully, play two real good games and leave there up in the series. That's the goal."

The Golden Knights are the third team to win multiple NHL playoff series in their inaugural season, joining the Toronto Arenas (1918) and St. Louis Blues (1968).

This is the first time two opponents are making their conference final debuts since 2003, when the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim swept the Wild in the Western Conference Final.

Video: What to expect from the Western Conference Final

 

Game breaker

Golden Knights: Forward William Karlsson had a breakout regular season and hasn't slowed in the postseason. He has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 10 games, second on Vegas behind the other members of the top line, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, who each has 11 points. Karlsson, who is averaging 22:28 of ice time per game in the postseason, is plus-6. The Golden Knights have had 56.67 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice, seventh among forwards who have played at least 10 postseason games. Three of Karlsson's 43 regular-season goals were against the Jets.

Jets: Center Mark Scheifele leads the playoffs with 11 goals in 12 games, one more than Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Scheifele scored seven goals in the four games at Nashville, including two in a 5-1, Game 7 win Thursday. He leads the Jets with 16 points after he had 60 points (23 goals, 37 assists) in 60 regular-season games. Scheifele is averaging 21:14 of ice time per game, most among Winnipeg forwards in the postseason, and has four points (three goals, one assist) on the power play.

 

X-factor

Golden Knights: Rookie forward Alex Tuch has used his size (6-foot-4, 224 pounds) and speed to bedevil opponents. He has four goals, tied for the Vegas lead with Smith and Karlsson, and seven points, tied for fourth on the Golden Knights. Tuch especially has been effective on the power play, with four points (three goals, one assist).

Jets: Forward Kyle Connor scored 31 goals during the regular season but has been held to two goals in the playoffs, each in Game 5 against Nashville. He has not been needed to score much so far, with linemates Scheifele and Blake Wheeler carrying the play on the top line. Connor's 7.1 percent shooting percentage is less than half of his regular-season rate (16.1).

Video: WPG@NSH, Gm5: Connor nets own rebound in front

 

Goaltending

Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury has been the best goalie in the postseason. His .951 save percentage is tops among starting goalies, as are his four shutouts. He has an even-strength save percentage of .958, the best in the postseason since the stat began being tracked in 1997-98. Fleury played against the Jets once in the regular season; he made 26 saves in a 3-2 overtime win Feb. 1.

Jets: Connor Hellebuyck played big when he needed to in the second round. He made 36 saves on 37 shots in Game 7 and won three of four starts at Nashville; his loss was in overtime of Game 2. Hellebuyck struggled against Vegas in the regular season with a 4.40 goals-against average and .857 save percentage (12 goals on 84 shots).

 

Numbers to know

Golden Knights: Vegas has killed 34 of 40 penalties, a success rate of 85.0 percent, second in the postseason to Los Angeles (91.7). The Jets are 11th at 74.2 percent, having killed 23 of 31 penalties.

Jets: Winnipeg is plus-76 in 5-on-5 shot attempts, first during the playoffs. Vegas is fourth at plus-44 but has played 10 games, two fewer than Winnipeg.

 

They said it

"It's a physical series. We've got some skaters. Kyle Connor got better as the series went on, stronger. I really liked [Nikolaj] Ehlers' game, on the puck. But that's a difficult thing to do, to get out on the road ... to play well in here as consistently as we did, it's impressive." -- Jets coach Paul Maurice on defeating the Predators

"It felt like guys were like, 'Yeah, that was fun, but this is not over, that was a just a part of it.' The last two days, the tempo and the intensity have ramped up quite a bit and guys are ready to go onto the next series. I don't think the guys are satisfied yet."-- Golden Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Video: Melrose on the Jets, Vegas' play, and best hair

 

Will win if …

Golden Knights: They get production from their second line, which has Erik Haula at center with David Perron and James Neal. The three have combined for 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) through 10 games but face a new challenge against the Jets, who made the Predators' second line all but disappear. Perron has seven points but no goals. Neal and Haula each has one goal in the past five games.

Jets: They neutralize the speed of Vegas with their physical play, which Winnipeg used to slow Nashville. The charge has been led by defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, whose 46 hits are the third most in the postseason, and Ben Chiarot, who has 39. The Golden Knights are faster than the Predators and will present more of a challenge in the attacking zone.

 

How they look

Golden Knights projected lineup

William Karlsson -- Reilly Smith -- Jonathan Marchessault

James Neal -- Erik Haula -- David Perron

Oscar Lindberg -- Cody Eakin -- Alex Tuch

Ryan Carpenter -- Pierre-Edouard Bellemare -- Tomas Nosek

Brayden McNabb -- Nate Schmidt

Shea Theodore -- Deryk Engelland

Luca Sbisa -- Colin Miller

Marc-Andre Fleury

Malcolm Subban

Scratched: Jon Merrill, Tomas Tatar, Ryan Reaves, Brad Hunt

Injured: William Carrier (undisclosed)

 

Jets projected lineup

Kyle Connor -- Mark Scheifele -- Blake Wheeler

Nikolaj Ehlers -- Paul Stastny -- Patrik Laine

Brandon Tanev -- Adam Lowry -- Andrew Copp

Mathieu Perreault -- Bryan Little -- Joel Armia

Josh Morrissey -- Jacob Trouba

Toby Enstrom -- Dustin Byfuglien

Ben Chiarot -- Tyler Myers

Connor Hellebuyck

Steve Mason

Scratched: Tucker Poolman, Joe Morrow, Shawn Matthias, Marko Dano, Jack Roslovic, Matt Hendricks

Injured: Dmitry Kulikov (lower body)

 

Status report

Carrier, who has been a difference-maker on the forecheck, is unlikely to play in Game 1. The forward missed Game 6 against the Sharks and did not skate during practice Wednesday or Thursday. ... Sbisa said he is close to 100 percent after averaging 15:52 of ice time the past two games. He missed the first eight games of the playoffs because of an upper-body injury.

***

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