The Winnipeg Jets couldn’t have dreamt up a better start to the third round. On a warm and white spring evening, the National Hockey League’s two newest franchises met up in game one of the Western Conference Finals from Bell MTS Place Saturday
. In scoring three goals in the opening eight minutes, Winnipeg came out of the gate flying, building off of an incredibly strong first period, ultimately leading the home team to a decisive 4-2 victory.
Dustin Byfuglien started things off for the Jets, stepping into a one-timer drop pass from Mark Scheifele that found its way through Marc-Andre Fleury, giving Winnipeg a 1-0 lead just 1:05 into the first.
After being turnbuckled along the Jets’ players bench, Golden Knights’ Alex Tuch found himself in the box for hooking. It was on the ensuing power play that Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine collected his fourth goal of the playoffs. Laine blasted a one-timer past an out-of-position Fleury off of a cross-ice Blake Wheeler feed. That play was only made possible due to an incredible stretching effort by Byfuglien to keep the play alive on the blue line.
The Jets added to their lead less than a minute later as winger Joel Armia redirected a Ben Chiarot centering pass through Fleury. Referee Kelly Sutherland originally waved off the Armia goal, but following a Paul Maurice Coach’s Challenge, it was determined that the Winnipeg forward did not interfere with Fleury before re-directing the puck into the net.
Brayden McNabb scored Vegas’ first goal of the series moments later off of a great setup play in Winnipeg’s end. Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith teamed up to find a pinching McNabb, who in turn, ripped a wrist shot through the glove of Connor Hellebucyk. The final goal of the first period was McNabb’s second of the postseason. The Jets outshot the Golden Knights 12-6 in the opening frame.
The second period saw the teams exchange goals. Midway through the frame, with the Jets on the power play, Winnipeg added to their lead on yet another Dustin Byfuglien point shot. With a crowd forming between the hulking blueliner and the Golden Knights’ goal, Mark Scheifele redirected Byfuglien’s blast past a screened Fleury, extending Winnipeg’s lead to 4-1.
The goal was Scheifele’s 12th of the postseason – maintaining his three-goal cushion over second place Alex Ovechkin in the playoff scoring leaderboard. Wheeler picked up his third assist of the game on the Scheifele redirection.
Kelly McCrimmon’s team got one back on a power play of their own with four minutes to go in the second period. With Ben Chiarot in the penalty box for tripping, Jonathan Marchessault found a streaking William Karlsson cross-ice with an excellent shot-pass. The Golden Knights’ leading scorer easily redirected the puck past Hellebuyck and into the Jets’ cage, bringing the visitors to within two goals. Winnipeg maintained its lead in the shot department, finishing the second period up 22-13.
The third period provided little opportunity for either team to find the twine, as the defensive zones were near impenetrable. The Golden Knights put up eight shots in the third – their most productive 20 minutes of the game, while Winnipeg only registered four shots on net. The Jets did, however, block 22 of Vegas’ total shot attempts – twelve more than their competition.
Winnipeg natives Ryan Reaves and Cody Eakin made their returns to Winnipeg Saturday. For Reaves, it was his first as a Golden Knight, as the 6-foot-1, 225-pound enforcer was dealt from the Pittsburgh Penguins to Vegas mid-season. Eakin – who had been selected by the Golden Knights from Dallas at the expansion draft – had played for Vegas against the Jets in the past.
Reaves’ highlight of the game came on a bodycheck that sent Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler head-over-heels into the Vegas bench. Reaves finished a -1 with a charging penalty and two hits in 7:25 of icetime. Eakin was a non-factor in just under 13 minutes played.
Even with netminder Marc-Andre Fleury pulled for roughly 2:30 minutes, the Golden Knights were unable to draw any closer to Winnipeg, ultimately falling 4-2 to the Jets at Bell MTS Place.
Fleury stopped 22 of the 26 shots he faced, while Hellebuyck allowed just two goals on 21 shots. Brandon Tanev led Winnipeg with six hits, while Joel Armia put together five shots in the Saturday’s victory.
Although many have predicted a very high scoring series, the records and statistics behind starting netminders Connor Hellebuyck and Marc-Andre Fleury may say otherwise. Heading into Saturday’s game, both goaltenders had recorded multiple shutouts in the 2018 playoffs thus far, while each had also picked up all eight victories for his respective team. Other than the opening 20 minutes of Saturday’s matchup, the netminders seemed to thrive under pressure.
The veteran Fleury (33) not only holds the edge on Hellebuyck (24) when it comes to playoff experience, but also save percentage and goals against average in this year’s postseason. Boasting a .951 save percentage and a ridiculous 1.53 goals against average through two rounds, Fleury’s numbers speak for themselves, but Hellebuyck’s .927 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average also indicate quality goaltending.
The Golden Knights came out on top in two of the three regular season matchups between Vegas and Winnipeg in 2017-18. The first game went to the Knights 5-2 in Vegas. Game two was a 7-4 Winnipeg victory in Manitoba, while the third game – also in Winnipeg – was won by the visitors, 3-2 in overtime. The two teams have scored a total of 11 and 12 goals respectively.
In riding home ice advantage for the remainder of the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Jets will host game two from Bell MTS Place on Monday evening, as Winnipeg will look to build upon their success from game one in the series’ second contest. Puckdrop is set for 7:00 P.M.
Tickets will once again be required upon entrance to the Winnipeg Whiteout street party. That party gets underway at 5:00 P.M. central time. Winnipeg Harvest will once again have its non-perishable food donation bins located inside the party gates and all entrances to the arena. The game can be viewed live on CBC or Sportsnet. It will also be broadcasted on TSN 1290.
By Carter Brooks
Photos by Rusty Barton and James Carey Lauder