John Locher / Associated Press
Saturday, April 15, 2023 | 4:48 p.m.
The Golden Knights felt they were ready.
The Western Conference Final in 2018 was set to be their biggest test yet in terms of an opponent. The Winnipeg Jets had just knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in seven games and were about to have home-ice advantage against the newest team in the league.
Following a first-round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings and a six-game thriller against the San Jose Sharks, the Golden Knights seemingly faced their toughest test to date.
The Jets jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first 7:35 of Game 1. The sold-out Bell MTS Place (now the Canadian Life Centre), with its fans donned in white for the traditional Winnipeg Whiteout, roared louder with every moment.
The Golden Knights went on to lose 4-2 and trail in a series for the first time. One would think it’s the first time they faced adversity in the postseason.
“I would disagree with you there,” said forward Reilly Smith, highlighting the difficulty of eliminating Los Angeles and San Jose. “We never acted like anything was handed to us.”
Of course, the rest is history. The Golden Knights got exemplary play from Jonathan Marchessault (seven points in the series), and world-class goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury. Vegas won the next four games to capture the Campbell Bowl as conference champions.
Much has changed since that time, but one constant has been how good the Golden Knights and Jets have been since that time. The two teams will meet in the postseason for the first time since that five-game conference final starting Tuesday with Game 1 of their first-round series at T-Mobile Arena (6:30 p.m., ATTSN-RM, ESPN).
“I just remember it being a tough series,” said center William Karlsson. “They had a great team. Game 1 of that series, we weren’t really on our toes and they showed what they could do.”
The 2018 Jets were a workhorse of a team. They closed the regular season on a 22-7-1 run and finished with 114 points, second most in the NHL behind the Predators. It was a team with a good mixture of youth and experience that was primed for a run at the Stanley Cup that year, and beyond.
Much has stayed the same with Winnipeg since 2018. The core remains with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler as the leadership contingent. Kyle Connor has blossomed to become one of the best goal scorers in the league (78 since the start of last season). Josh Morrissey has evolved from a 21-year-old defenseman to a blueliner who should be a Norris Trophy finalist after finishing tied for second with 76 points including six game-winning goals.
To solidify the center position is Pierre-Luc Dubois. The 25-year-old finished third on the team with 27 goals while putting up a career-best 63 points.
And let’s not forget Connor Hellebuyck. The 2020 Vezina Trophy winner, and arguably the best goalie in the world, willed the Jets to the playoffs by winning nine of his last 14 starts, allowing 1.94 goals per game and posting a .929 save percentage in that stretch. He’s likely to be a Vezina finalist for the third time.
If Hellebuyck gets hot, the Jets are as tough a team as any to beat in the league. Though Winnipeg ranked 21st in the league in scoring with 3 goals per game, the club was 10th in goals allowed per game (2.73).
“I taught him everything he knows,” said goalie Laurent Brossoit, who backed up Hellebuyck for three years in Winnipeg and is expected to be the Game 1 starter for Vegas. “It’ll be fun to go against him. We got along really well.”
That run to the conference final started a run of the Jets making the playoffs for four straight years. But they have yet to make it that far since. Winnipeg missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2017 as longtime coach Paul Maurice stepped down in the middle of the season and is now leading the Florida Panthers.
The Jets are now led by 68-year-old Rick Bowness, who the Golden Knights saw up close back in the 2020 playoffs that were resumed in the fall due to the pandemic and played in a bubble in Edmonton. The Dallas Stars, coached by Bowness at the time, beat the Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final.
Much like his time in Dallas, Bowness’ gameplan is to play a sound defensive game while controlling the neutral zone. Not allowing easy offensive-zone entries will be Winnipeg’s key to stopping Vegas.
It’s a much different approach than the up-tempo Jets from 2018 that were second in the league in goals per game with 3.33.
“You look at the team they had, they had a lot of good players on that team,” Smith said. “We found different ways to win. Flower (Fleury) made some big saves, we had some timely goals.”
The Golden Knights are getting healthy at the right time at the forward position. Captain Mark Stone continues to work his way back from back surgery. He was a full-contact participant at practice on Saturday for the first time since undergoing a procedure on Jan. 31. Center Jack Eichel returned to the lineup Thursday after missing the prior two games due to a lower-body injury.
Defensively, Shea Theodore (lower body) also returned Thursday and will be a full-go, and Zach Whitecloud anticipates being back following a lower-body injury.
“A lot’s happened since the first year. A lot of new guys,” Karlsson said. “I really believe in this group. Everyone contributes, and I think that makes us a good team.”
Danny Webster can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected] Follow Danny on Twitter at twitter.com/DannyWebster21.