Golden Knights saved best for last and advance

Early goals in the first and second periods put Vegas in the driver's seat as the Golden Knights advanced to round two with a 4-1 win.

LAS VEGAS — One series down, three to go.

The first handshakes of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs were at T-Mobile Arena Thursday night as the Vegas Golden Knights thoroughly outplayed the Winnipeg Jets en route to a 4-1 win in front of 18,476 and a five-game victory in their opening-round best-of-seven matchup.

The Knights will get some time to rest up before starting the Western Conference semifinals against the survivor of the Edmonton-Los Angeles series which has been a back-and-forth affair. The Oilers can advance with a win over the Kings on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena.

“We saw Carolina, Boston and Toronto had a chance to close out a series and we found a way to get it done,” Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We still have work to do. We know that.”  

Vegas struck early in each of the first two periods against Winnipeg, which was without star center Mark Schiefele and defenseman Josh Morrisey, the latter who was injured early in Game 1 and never returned to the series. They did get Nikolaj Ehlers back but he was not a factor Thursday.

Once again, the Knights’ centers outplayed the Jets’ as Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson and Jack Eichel, along with Nic Roy dominated. Stephenson scored twice, Karlsson notched his fourth of the playoffs in the second period as the Knights extended a 1-0 first-period lead to 4-0, all but ensuring they’d be on the right side of the post-series handshake line.

“They’re good players,” Cassidy said of his centers, who outplayed Winnipeg’s. “Karly was consistent from Game 1. Jack needed some breathing room but he got better as the series went along. Stevie was good throughout and Nic Roy was good. I thought getting Will Carrier back with him was good for Nic.”

The team welcomed the return of Carrier, the veteran forward who had missed seven weeks with a lower-body injury. Carrier replaced Phil Kessel, the NHL’s ironman who last missed a game for any reason back on Nov, 3, 2009.  However, Kessel’s current streak of 1,064 consecutive games played remains intact because the postseason doesn’t count toward a player’s individual stats.

Carrier was having a career year with 16 goals when he was injured. As Cassidy had said prior to the game, had he not been hurt, his spot in the lineup would’ve been assured.

The Knights also won without defensemen Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb, who were out for Game 5 — Theodore due to illness, McNabb with an upper-body injury. Both should be ready to go in the next round.

On paper, this looked like a potentially difficult matchup for the Knights. Connor Hellebuyck had been locked in heading into the playoffs and the goaltending matchup seemed to favor the Jets.

But Hellebuyck was unable to backstop his team past the Knights, who received some quality goaltending throughout the series from Laurent Brossoit, who ironically had served as Hellebuyck’s backup for three years in Winnipeg.

Cassidy’s defensive system of not allowing high-danger chances and having the centers come back and help the defense worked well in the series. The Jets never really got untracked after taking Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena. The return of Eichel and Mark Stone proved to be one of the deciding factors as Stone was simply dominating as he came back from back surgery in January. In the four subsequent games following his being kept off the scoresheet in Game 1, the captain had three goals and five assists.

Eichel got better as the series went along after he missed some time late in the year and was experiencing playoff hockey for the first time. He had three goals and a pair of helpers in the five games.

The Knights’ best players showed up and dominated while the support guys like Brett Howden, Michael Amadio, Keegan Kolesar and Ben Hutton all contributed. You can truly say this was a team effort and it points to the quality depth this team has.

The fact Cassidy would sit a veteran like Kessel who has Stanley Cup rings from his time in Pittsburgh tells you that if you’re in the lineup, you better produce because someone is ready to take your place.

Guys like Paul Cotter and Pavel Dorofeyev, who had made solid contributions to the Knights during the regular season, never saw the ice in the first round of the playoffs. But who’s to say we might not see them in the next round? 

Cassidy may not have had his best six defensemen on the ice Thursday. But he did have the 12 best forwards available to him and that was good enough to continue playing next week.

“We had a good game plan,” Stone said. “We stuck with it and it worked.”