LAS VEGAS (AP) — Vegas heads into the NHL playoffs with home-ice advantage in the Western Conference, but the Golden Knights in many ways are flying under the radar.
They are the third-most likely team to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, behind Colorado and Edmonton. The defending champion Avalanche went 10-1-1 down the stretch, and the Oilers — led by three 100-point scorers — ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak.
But the Knights also had an impressive final kick with a 5-0-3 record to set up the first-round series with the Winnipeg Jets. Game 1 is Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
“We feel confident in our group, and I think we’ve had a chip on our shoulder the whole year,” Knights center Jack Eichel said. “It’ll be no different heading into playoffs.”
Vegas had to be in playoff mode to end the regular season to fend off other challengers in the Pacific Division and in the conference, going all the way its final game to secure the top spot in both.
“I think it helps sharpen us up for playoffs,” Knights goalie Laurent Brossoit said. “For us to have done so well in that stretch is also very important. It’s a testament to the maturity we have in the locker room and the skill we have in the locker room and the consistency we have.”
Winnipeg didn’t exactly ease into the playoffs, going 5-2 to capture the last wild card spot.
“We’re not here to give these (Knights) a little workout to move on to the next round,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said. “We’re here to win.”
Knights captain Mark Stone, who has not played since injuring his back Jan. 12 against Florida, was cleared to play Tuesday. He underwent surgery Jan. 31, his second back operation in less than nine months.
“I’m pretty emotional right now,” Stone said Monday. “It brought some tears to my eyes, but I’m excited to be back. It’s been a long two years. I don’t want to miss this. I want to play with these guys.”
Stone, who is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, had 17 goals and 38 points in 43 games this season.
Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said he also expected defenseman Zach Whitecloud, who has missed the past two games with a lower-back injury, to be back.
On the other side, Bowness said forward Nikolaj Ehlers is day to day with an upper-body injury, but the player seems to have a difference of opinion.
“I’m in a bit of a media war with coach,” Ehlers said, smiling. “I feel very good, let’s put it the way.”
Ehlers had 12 goals and 38 points in 45 games.
BATTLE IN THE NET
Brossoit, who has not lost in regulation this season in going 7-0-3 with a .927 save percentage, will start Game 1 against his former team. He played for the Jets from 2018-21 behind Connor Hellebuyck, the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner.
“I taught him everything he knows that year, and I think he’ll attest to that,” Brossoit said jokingly. “It’ll be fun to go against him. We got along really well, and we had a good, healthy, competitive relationship.”
Hellebuyck had a .920 save percentage this season with a 2.49 goals-against average.
OWNING THE SERIES
The Jets went 0-3 against the Knights in the regular season.
Vegas won the two October meetings at home 5-2 and 2-1, the latter in which Hellebuyck was forced to make 46 saves. Their last meeting, Dec. 13 at Winnipeg, was a 6-5 Vegas victory.
“We were very slow out to the gate, even the game in Winnipeg,” Bowness said. “These teams are close. We just haven’t played as well as we can against them.”
The Knights led the NHL with 18.2 blocked shots per game. Alec Martinez (244 blocks) and Brayden McNabb (197) were first and second, and Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo was seventh with 177.
Martinez has made a career of stepping into the path of opposing shots.
“Lots of stupidity,” he said, jokingly. “When I was younger, trying to find a way to get in the lineup and stay in the lineup just like every young guy does. That was something that I felt I could add to my repertoire.”
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