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Playoff Experience Is the Difference in Western Conference Series

The Vegas Golden Knights are finding ways to win. The Golden Knights currently lead their first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets 2-1. They were holding off a late comeback from the Jets to take Game 3 in a double-overtime thriller Saturday. Vegas was the number one seed in the West, and many expected a blowout. Vegas easily dispatching the eighth-seeded Winnipeg in convincing fashion. However, Vegas has had to work for each game, relying on their depth and resilience. It’s a familiar spot for Vegas, but the stakes are so much higher now. Here are some trends in the Vegas vs Winnipeg series. 

Playoff Experience the Difference in Vegas vs Winnipeg Matchup

Aggressively Average on Paper 

One notable trend in the Vegas vs Winnipeg series is the rosters. Despite winning the Pacific Division, the Golden Knights do not look like a championship-winning team on paper. Only Jonathan Marchessault, Jack Eichel, and Reilly Smith scored more than 20 goals in the regular season. In addition, Mark Stone finished fourth on the team with 17. However, he didn’t hit the ice the entire second half of the season. They don’t have a consistent goal-scorer, their power-play was ranked 18th in the league at 20.3%, and the penalty kill was ranked even lower. In fact, the only major statistical categories where they ranked in the top ten in the league were faceoff percentage…and points percentage. So far through the playoffs, the trend has mostly continued. The power-play still sits at 16.7 percent, and the penalty kill at 70%. Meanwhile, they are third in the playoffs in goals for per game played. They’re also third in goals against per game.

How It Gets Done

So how are they doing it? This is not a team that’s putting in dominant performances, getting once-in-a-lifetime play from generational talents. However, they’re winning more than almost anyone in the league. The answer lies in their depth talent. While Marchessault’s team-leading 28 regular season goals might look low, Vegas has twelve players that scored double-digit goals this season. They continued to get contributions from up and down the lineup through three games of the playoffs. Top-liners like William Karlsson, Eichel, and Stone have found the back of the net. In addition, bottom-six players Keegan Kolesar and Michael Amadio also scored, with Amadio netting the game-winner in Saturday’s double-overtime game. It’s meant that Vegas has been able to win games that they have no business winning. Having a different player becoming the breakout star every night is crucial. 

Depth and Experience 

This Vegas team made it to the playoffs based on their depth, but the veterans have made the difference. Mark Stone returned to play after being out since January with a back injury and quickly returned to form after a slightly shaky Game 1. He had two goals and an assist in Vegas’s Game 2 victory, and his intangible contributions as a leader on and off the ice cannot be overstated. Stone provides energy in a way few other players do, and getting him back in action has been a huge boost for Vegas. Defencemen Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez have been playing great minutes, as well as the “Misfit” line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith. 

Of the 21 players that have been rostered for the Golden Knights so far (including backup goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Adin Hill), just Jack Eichel, Laurent Brossoit, and Adin Hill had never played in a playoff game. Sixteen players have touched the ice in at least one Conference final series, twelve have been to the Stanley Cup Finals, and six have reached the top of the mountain and raised the Cup themselves. The wealth of playoff experience came in especially handy in Game 3, with Vegas allowing a three-goal comeback to send the game to overtime. In an incredibly hostile away environment, Vegas handled business, staying calm and eventually finding the game-winner. That level of experience gives a team confidence that could be the difference between a remarkable run and an early exit.

Experience Helping and Hindering the Jets 

On Winnipeg’s side, the veterans also came to play. Adam Lowry has scored four goals, and Kyle Connor has tallied a pair so far. Mark Scheifele has also been noticeable, netting a goal in Game 3. However, the Jets may see a bigger impact from the loss of experience. Defenceman Josh Morrissey left Game 3 with a lower-body injury, and head coach Rick Bowness confirmed that Morrissey would be out for the remainder of the series. Morrissey had been having his best season in his eight-year career, with sixteen goals in the regular season and sneaking his way into Norris Trophy conversations. Winnipeg loses a huge presence in the back end without him and will have to field a less confident replacement. 

Both the Winnipeg and Vegas rosters definitely read more “veteran” than “rookie”. At the end of the day, this series is going to come down to which team is better able to weather the storm. It’s a fun, gritty series with a whole lot of players who know what they’re doing and are playing with the confidence expected of a veteran team.

Main Photo: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports


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