The problem for the Golden Knights’ opponents in the first round, as we’ve discussed in this space before, is that they just couldn’t keep up with the top line.
Seems like the Winnipeg Jets won’t have that problem.
In theory, the better draw for Vegas heading into this Western Conference Final was the Predators, because Nashville clearly struggled with fast, skilled top lines in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Preds were deep enough to overcome a great showing from Nathan MacKinnon and Co., but while they still struggled to corral the Kyle Connor-Mark Schiefele-Blake Wheeler line, they really had problems with the second unit on which Paul Stastny scored approximately 40 goals over the seven games.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Winnipeg didn’t exactly run away with the series. Headed into Game 7, pretty much every underlying number was more or less dead even — in fact, Nashville actually scored more goals at 5-on-5. Didn’t work out for the Preds in Game 7, but this was a really good team with maybe just a deficiency or two, and Winnipeg exploited that pretty effectively.
Having said that, there’s plenty of cause for concern if you’re Vegas here. While they might be able to win the battle between Winnipeg’s top line and Jon Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith, one wonders how effective, say, the Perron-Haula-Neal group can be against a second line for the Jets that just put up about a goal a game against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Likewise, the extent to which the third line of Little, Perreault, and Tanev pushed around the Predators’ depth guys cannot be oversold. Can you say the same for Cody Eakin’s trio?
The reason the Golden Knights made everything look so easy in the first two rounds of these playoffs is because their opponents were built for the “heavy hockey” days of the Pacific Division three or four years ago. These are living fossils from an era that now simply cannot (and should not) exist in modern hockey. One might have assumed San Jose would put up a better fight, but a hot goalie and a banged-up forward group brought their postseason to a close, and that was fair enough. Again, no matter what you think of Vegas’s depth, the team at least plays fast enough hockey to run a track meet even if it’s not going to out-skill you on every matchup all night long. And some teams, well, they can’t have everyone playing the run ‘n’ gun game all night for a full series.
Not so with the Jets. You wanna sprint it up and down the ice for 60 minutes? Nik Ehlers, who’s somehow on the Jets’ second line in this postseason after having a 29-31-60 campaign, will bring his running shoes. That Little line can play at any pace you like.
Also worth noting: The Predators had a lethal power play and strong attack, but Connor Hellebuyck only gave up 19 goals in seven games, and five of them were in one night. That’s not exactly Marc-Andre Fleury’s territory in terms of keeping it stingy, but if Nashville could only occasionally solve him with their glut of forward talent, one wonders how a thinner Vegas team can compete.
Now, to be fair, Winnipeg certainly built its case through a pretty poor performance from Pekka Rinne in these divisional finals, but how much of that do we put on Rinne (certainly: “some”) and how much on Winnipeg’s relentless attack? It wouldn’t be wise to expect Fleury to be that leaky, simply because you can’t imagine him giving up the kinds of softies Rinne did in Game 7.
That’s not to say Vegas can’t also make teams look bad, because, well that’s what they did to LA and San Jose. But the way in which they did it — as it was all season — was largely through the top line with a little bit of help from elsewhere. Winnipeg distributed the goals for and against far more evenly across both the regular and postseasons, and as a general rule, when a guy who looked for a while like he might lead the league in goals is on your second line, that puts you in a pretty strong position to continue that trend in perpetuity.
Put another way, the Jets took a big step forward process-wise this year because of how evenly they could distribute the talent they’ve had gestating for a while. Vegas had a strongish year process-wise because of how good its top line was. If you want to go punch-for-punch that’s fine and the hockey should be incredibly entertaining, but with the exception of a so-so Jets fourth line (ah and by the way, Jack Roslovic is coming next year) this is a team that can put up some goals on you for a good 80 percent of any given game.
Teams with elite top lines can go far in this league, but if the depth can’t deliver, that’s the big stopper. The Golden Knights gave their two opponents so far some pretty tough rides, but the gap between LA or San Jose’s second line and Winnipeg’s is like the gap between Vegas’s first and second lines.
The big hurdle for Winnipeg here is that Vegas has been so good defensively that they haven’t needed a lot of goals. Fleury’s heroics at 5-on-5 have been discussed broadly, but the PK has also been second-best of any team in the postseason. Winnipeg’s power play has also been well above average, but if it can’t get traffic to the front of the net (something the California teams couldn’t really do even on the power play) then this is a potential stumbling block as well. But they did it to Nashville no problem, and it’s hard to think a team with as much defensive talent as the Preds in the entire league. Vegas doesn’t exactly stack up man-for-man there.
Also worth noting if we’re talking about a goaltending battle: Connor Hellebuyck is third among all goalies in save percentage in this postseason (.927, dwarfed by Fleury’s .951), and he’s certainly had the toughest draw of any goaltender so far. He’s more than capable of holding his own.
And if traffic is what ends up being the key to the series, I think you just have to like Winnipeg’s ability to do it consistently throughout the game than anyone Vegas has faced. And because Vegas got by on pretty slim margins against shallower teams — and needed its goalie to play at an incredible, heretofore unseen level to get there — the Jets might finally be too big of an ask for the Golden Knights’ depth.
Then again, in three games this year, Vegas and Winnipeg each scored 11 goals in regulation. So hockey’s weird. Which is why Vegas got this far at all.
All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise. Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.