Every hockey follower knows about the Vegas Golden Knights. The expectation was that they would be preparing for the luxurious Nevada golf courses in November because the expansion team would need some time to build up to the competition.
Yet nearly halfway through May, the Knights have a 50% chance at representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. An expansion team that has broken record after record could very well pull off the unthinkable at hoisting the Stanley Cup on their first attempt.
After Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, however, getting to the Stanley Cup Finals will not be nearly as simple. That is because the Winnipeg Jets, a franchise that has little to brag about, have the team structure that is better suited for the main stage.
That seems surprising because the Jets had only reached the playoffs once since the 2011 relocation before this season, but the team underachieved the year after that playoff appearance and came up big in the 2016 NHL Draft. Despite finishing with the sixth worst record in the NHL, Winnipeg moved all the way up to the second pick and drafted Patrik Laine. That began Winnipeg’s drastic upward swing to the top of the Central Division.
Laine led the Western Conference with 44 goals during the regular season, and it was lasers like the one in the first period on Saturday that got him there. Yet it would be foolish to label him as the biggest impact player for the team’s playoff run, which included a dominant Game 7 victory in Nashville.
Wheeler is no stranger to producing goals, as his 68 assists were tied with Claude Giroux for the most helpers in the NHL. Winnipeg needed every bit of his help against the Predators, as he picked up nine assists for the series and eight in the four games in Nashville. He regularly fed Scheifele, another first-round pick, and that is a big reason why Scheifele leads in the NHL with 12 postseason goals. The 25-year-old alternate captain scored all seven of his second-round goals on the road, including two in Game 7. After setting up Dustin Byfuglien with the first goal of the Western Conference Finals, he capped off the scoring with a deflection in the second period.
It is worth mentioning that Winnipeg gave up its 2018 first round pick for Paul Stastny, and as the value of that pick drops with recurring victories, Stastny has become more than just a veteran presence. Like Scheifele, Stastny scored twice in Game 7, and he has a surprising 15 points with his new team.
Through all the difficulties to gain attention in a small market, Connor Hellebuyck continues to break out in a huge way. He smothered Minnesota in the first round with consecutive 30-save shutouts in Game 4 and 5, and did just enough to hold off the Predators offense. He made a statement with 47 saves to win Game 1 in Bridgestone Arena, and ended the series with 36 saves in Game 7. His GAA stands at 2.25, which is a far cry from the team’s inflated defensive stats from the previous two years.
From being one of the smallest markets in the NHL to playing an expansion franchise in the Western Conference Finals, the Jets have had several barriers to break this season. Shocking the defending Western Conference Champions in seven games, and on the road, turned some heads, and making the Golden Knights look like, of course, newcomers for one game was an added impression. Is the “White Noise” inside and outside Bell MTS Place making a difference, or has this crew come out from the northern frontier to wreak havoc on the NHL?
Not only could the Jets end Canada’s 25-year Stanley Cup drought with two more series wins, but it would complete a lengthy mission, which has lasted two franchises under the same name, of finding some needed shining glory.
Vegas winning the Cup would be a story of a lifetime, but Winnipeg is the real market ready to take control. The dominance of Wheeler, Scheifele, and Laine could last a while, and getting a Stanley Cup while Laine is still a teen could be a sign of big things to come in Manitoba.