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Conference Final

Jets-Golden Knights winner debated by NHL.com writers

Winnipeg favored to defeat Vegas in Western Conference Final

NHL.com @NHLdotcom

The Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights will each look to make more history in the Western Conference Final beginning with Game 1 at Bell MTS Place on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).

Winnipeg, which began play as the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-00 before relocating prior to the 2011-12 season, is in the conference final for the first time in franchise history. Vegas is in its inaugural season.

 

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

 

The Jets have the most regular-season points (114) among the four teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having eliminated the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 of the second round Thursday. The Golden Knights are on a run for the ages that has seen them get past two Pacific Division rivals, the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

Winnipeg has goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy; forward Patrik Laine, who scored 44 goals in the regular season, second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (49); and center Mark Scheifele, who leads the playoffs with 11 goals, one more than Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Video: What to expect from the Western Conference Final

Vegas counters with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who leads the playoffs in save percentage (.951), and William Karlsson, who scored 43 goals this season and has scored four in the postseason, tied for the Golden Knights lead with Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault.

Who will advance to the Stanley Cup Final? We asked five NHL.com staffers who have covered the two teams in the playoffs. Here are their responses:

 

Lisa Dillman, staff writer

Do I dare pick against the Golden Knights? I made the mistake of not picking them in the first round against the Kings, and we all know how that worked out.

Though Vegas has had two lengthy breaks between rounds and will be the fresher team, I have to go with the Jets, who are better than the Kings and Sharks.

The Jets can play the heavy, physical brand of hockey favored by Los Angeles and have the speed and skill of San Jose. Another point to consider: Hellebuyck was impressive on the road in the second round, going 3-1 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.

This could serve him well in the frenzied atmosphere of T-Mobile Arena in Vegas. If you can survive Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena, well, you are pretty much ready for anything.

Jets in six.

 

Nick Cotsonika, columnist

No one has been a bigger believer in the Golden Knights than I have. I've been saying they're for real for months. I picked them to defeat the Kings in the first round and the Sharks in the second round.

And now?

I'm picking the Jets in six.

It's not that that the Golden Knights are huge underdogs. They finished fifth in the NHL standings, five points behind the Jets. They went 2-1-0 against Winnipeg. It was at Bell MTS Place on Feb. 1 that they earned their 34thwin, defeating the Jets 3-2 in overtime and setting a record for a first-year team.

But they showed cracks in the second round against San Jose. They were dominated for stretches and got out of rhythm when they were hemmed in their own zone, took penalties and couldn't roll three lines and three pairs. Their strengths are speed and depth, but the Jets are fast and deep too, and have more size and snarl.

Fleury was my pick at the midway point for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but by a hair over Scheifele. For Vegas to win, Fleury must keep playing at a Conn Smythe level, and the Golden Knights must exceed expectations yet again.

 

Tom Gulitti, staff writer

You'd think that by now my distinguished colleagues would have learned not to pick against the Golden Knights. Well, I have.

I was wrong in thinking they wouldn't come close to qualifying for the playoffs. I was wrong in thinking they had no chance to win the Pacific Division. I was wrong about pretty much everything they accomplished during the regular season.

So when the playoffs began, I decided I would never be wrong about Vegas again. And I haven't been.

I picked them to defeat the Kings, and I picked them to defeat the Sharks. So I'm sticking with them against the Jets. 

There's no question Winnipeg is deeper and more talented. And it has Hellebuyck, who has proven he can be a difference-maker. But Vegas has been relentless with its four lines from the start of the season, and I don't expect it to let up now. Fleury got the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final last season and then was relegated back to the bench when Matt Murray returned from injury. He's determined to finish the job this year with the Golden Knights.

Vegas in six.

 

Tim Campbell, staff writer

The Jets never trailed the series against the Predators. They won three road games by scores of 4-1, 6-2 and 5-1.

They did not luck their way into the conference final, and given the strength of the Central Division, they warrant being my pick for the next round.

It will take no less of an effort to defeat the Golden Knights, who have shown resiliency and consistency that have astounded many.

Hellebuyck and Fleury have excelled in these playoffs and figure to be in the spotlight again. Another top performance will be required to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Winnipeg's inexperience to start the playoffs seems like less of a factor. The battles the Jets have been through in two series have revealed an ability to adapt and improve, and there would seem to be no reason to assume that suddenly stops.

Vegas is impressive, but who am I to argue with Lisa and Nick? Jets in seven.

 

Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

I hate agreeing with the masses, but the Jets have left me no choice.

No disrespect to the Golden Knights, but the clock is about to strike midnight on their wonderful Cinderella story. It's about how good Winnipeg is, not about any warts Vegas might have.

Jets in six.

Talentwise, Winnipeg's depth ranks with that of the other three remaining playoff teams: Vegas, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Capitals. And they made the best acquisition of any team leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline, center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues. His six goals and eight assists have been vital in Winnipeg's postseason run.

But the Jets' success cuts deeper than just a rich talent pool. There is a youthful confidence and swagger in their dressing room that makes them all the more dangerous.

That was on display against Nashville. In four games at Bridgestone Arena, one of the most difficult places for opponents to play, Winnipeg did not lose in regulation, going 3-0-1. It lost Game 2 in double overtime, 5-4.

In the end, the Jets are skilled enough to go all the way. More importantly, they believe they can. There is no fear here.

***

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