The glittering pageantry of Las Vegas, the N.H.L.’s newest market, meets the white-out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a dyed-in-the-wool hockey town, in perhaps the most improbable conference finals matchup in N.H.L. history.
The Winnipeg Jets, who missed the playoffs last season, finished with the second-best record in the league, defying most prognosticators.
Even fewer predicted that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights would win the Pacific Division in their inaugural season. A $100 preseason wager on Vegas to win the Stanley Cup will pay roughly $50,000, if the Golden Knights go all the way.
Like the Washington Capitals in the East, these franchises have never won the Stanley Cup, meaning there is a 75 percent chance that the N.H.L. will crown a first-time champion in June.
How They Got Here
The Jets blitzed the Wild in five games in Round 1, outscoring Minnesota, 7-0, in Games 4 and 5. They then took a fierce seven-game series from the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Predators, including a rally from a 3-0 deficit in Game 3. After being the best home team during the season, the Jets were buoyed in Round 2 by three road victories in Nashville. But the Jets had only one day off between winning Game 7 in Nashville on Thursday and hosting Game 1 of the conference finals on Saturday.
Vegas has rarely trailed on the way to an 8-2 postseason record, tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the best mark in the playoffs. Neither Vegas nor Winnipeg has lost consecutive games in these playoffs. After spending over three and a half months in first place in the Pacific Division, the Golden Knights swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury allowing a mere three goals in four games. They tamed a fast, potent San Jose Sharks attack in Round 2 as Fleury book-ended the series with two more shutouts.
Dustin Byfuglien sets the tone for the physically imposing Jets.CreditTrevor Hagan/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
Jets at a Glance
With a healthier defense, elite goaltending and arguably the best top-six forward group in the West, the Jets soared into contender status this season. Winnipeg has protected its net well, controlled rebounds and used effective defense to initiate transition offense. With a lead, the Jets sport a record that would make Mariano Rivera blush. They have successfully protected 50 of 52 leads going into the third period, including all eight they held in the playoffs.
Connor Hellebuyck halted a dizzying goaltending carousel that often saw half a dozen netminders compete for starts in the past two seasons. He was an All-Star and a Vezina Trophy finalist during the regular season, success he has carried into the playoffs.
Winnipeg has not been remarkable on special teams, but its 36 even-strength goals are the most of any team in the playoffs. Center Mark Scheifele leads the playoffs in goals with 11, after scoring seven times in Round 2. Paul Stastny, a trade-deadline acquisition, has provided outstanding defense, timely scoring and veteran leadership. He had 10 points against Nashville and has six goals in 12 playoff games after scoring only 16 goals during the regular season.
The Jets are a physically imposing team. Patrik Laine, who led the team with 44 goals, is 6-foot-4, and the checking center Adam Lowry is 6-5. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien is 6-5 and 260 pounds, and they all look up to the 6-8 defenseman Tyler Myers. Byfuglien set the tone early against Nashville with big hits, and during one skirmish tossed around Austin Watson and Roman Josi — both more than 200 pounds — as if they were made of paper.
Golden Knights at a Glance
Vegas saw its third- and fourth-line forwards excel in Round 1, providing tight checking, energetic play and some scoring in a series in which goals proved scarce. In Round 2, Vegas’s top line dominated the Sharks. Left wing Jonathan Marchessault recorded three multiple-point games on the way to scoring nine of his 11 playoff points against San Jose, and his linemates William Karlsson and Reilly Smith had 16 of their 21 postseason points in the second round.
Left wing David Perron returned from injury and has continued his evolution into an elite playmaker with seven assists in eight games. The Golden Knights have suffocated opponents with checking that thrives on team speed, depth and sound position.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and forward William Karlsson were crucial to the Golden Knights’ success in the second round.CreditEthan Miller/Getty Images
On defense, the Knights mix the finesse of Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Colin Miller with the ruggedness of Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb and Jon Merrill, a group whose whole has remained far greater than the sum of its low-profile parts.
The Vegas penalty kill is the most effective one among teams remaining in the playoffs. The Knights have gotten career years from most of their roster, but Fleury has been their early favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He leads every major statistical category for goaltenders in the playoffs.
Byfuglien, Winnipeg’s top defenseman, won the Stanley Cup as a forward with Chicago in 2010. He is the only Jets player with any Stanley Cup finals experience. Vegas has Fleury, a three-time Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and wing James Neal, who played in last year’s finals with Nashville.
Vegas is only beginning to shape its legacy with an auspicious beginning, but Winnipeg’s complex playoff history spans leagues and franchises. The Jets originated in the World Hockey Association, where they won three championships and made five finals appearances in seven seasons. In the N.H.L., their fortunes worsened. They won only two playoff series, both in the first round, from 1980 to 1996.
Then the original franchise moved to Arizona and became the Coyotes. The Coyotes have won two playoff series since, both in 2012. The current Jets were the Atlanta Thrashers until 2011. They had never won a playoff series in Atlanta or Winnipeg until this season.
All times Eastern; x-if necessary
Saturday: Vegas at Winnipeg, 7 p.m., NBC
Monday: Vegas at Winnipeg, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Wednesday: Winnipeg at Vegas, 9 p.m., NBCSN
Friday, May 18: Winnipeg at Vegas, 8 p.m., NBCSN
x-Sunday, May 20: Vegas at Winnipeg, 3 p.m., NBC
x-Tuesday, May 22: Winnipeg at Vegas, 9 p.m., NBCSN
x-Thursday, May 24: Vegas at Winnipeg, 8 p.m., NBCSN
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