Viva Las Vegas vs the Winnipeg Whiteout: Why these NHL Playoffs are bonkers

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Playoff passions ignite

The puck’s just dropped on the NHL Playoffs and hockey fever’s gone global.

Here we take a look at the mind-blowing stories of these two Western Conference finalists vying for Stanley Cup immortality.

Duel of underdogs

One team has reached its first Conference playoff final in its 46 year history, the other its first.

The Winnipeg Jets vs the Las Vegas Knights is probably one the most improbable playoffs of all time.

 

It’s been 25 years since a Canadian-based team won the Stanley Cup and making the Western Conference Final has seen an explosion of emotion and support in Winnipeg, fans have created a ‘Whiteout‘ with huge street parties:

Royal Canadian Air Force flyovers:

One guy even brought his mother. His dead mother. In an urn, to the party:

They’ve even renamed a street after the euphoria that has swept the city on making their first ever Playoffs:

Seven years in Arizona

Winnipeg didn’t even have a team for seven years, it was taken away in 1996 and moved to Arizona as the Atlanta Thrashers but things soon went wrong and a return to Winnipeg was welcomed by loyal fans.

Now 15 years later the fans are on a wild ride, dreaming of Stanley Cup glory.

Men behind the miracle

The wonder of Winnipeg was built by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and Craig Heisinger who made the step from coach in the locker room to decision-maker in the boardroom.

The two built this team through careful draft picks and allowing time for talent to grow and gel. Paul Stastny was the exception to the rule, brought in from the St. Louis Blues in a last minute trade in February 2018, a fine piece of business as he was outstanding in the series against the Nashville Predators, scoring two goals in the series finale.

The same Nashville Predators who went to the Stanley Cup Final last year.

Most of the other players have been here longer, given the time to grow in a system designed for the long run.

A crucial goal in the decisive game 6 of the series from 2011 draft pick Mark Schiefele is a case in point, standout defensive displays from two more draft picks in Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba also underlining the fine work done by Cheveldayoff and Heisinger.

Patrik Laine was another draft pick in 2016, the 20-year-old Fin came up with a big goal in game 1 against their Vegas rivals:

The captain and spiritual leader of the team is 31-year-old Blake Wheeler who’s had his best season with 91 points crowned with his first NHL All-star game.

The Las Vegas Knights know all about him and as this hit shows, seem to prefer the idea of having him in their bench:

Wheeler is ably assisted as alternate captain by the mighty Dustin Byfuglien.

Backed by a great white army, the Winnipeg Jets are out to reward their wild and loyal fans by making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final and achieving something that was once unthinkable.

Ice in the desert? It’ll never catch on

The Las Vegas Knights story is as incredible, this is the first year that the City has had a team in the NHL and they’ve made hockey history by making the Conference Playoff Final.

When you look deeper into the details of this miracle on ice it is even more fascinating.

The Las Vegas rejects

The Knight’s roster was put together with players unwanted or ‘unprotected’ by other clubs, an NHL expansion team living with low expectations, from the outside at least.

Franchise owner Bill Foley’s claim that the team would win a Stanley Cup inside six years was met by muffled laughter from the back of the room but now there is a team and a fan base built in a flash that believes it’s possible.

The team came together in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the U.S., an attack at a concert on the iconic Las Vegas Strip that claimed the lives of 58 people and left 851 injured.

That happened on October 1st, The Las Vegas Knights played their first ever regular season game 5 days later and a traumatised Las Vegas found a welcome distraction in their new hockey team.

The players donated time, money and blood to victims and found themselves suddenly at the centre of a city where many scoffed at the idea that ice hockey could work in Vegas.

A tragedy that brought a sense of purpose to a team that hadn’t had enough time to find one of their own.

The Golden Misfits‘ they called themselves, an entire roster with a point to prove to everyone else. Even head coach Gerrard Gallant had been fired by the Florida Panthers.

This oasis of ice in the middle of the Nevada desert became a place for players to reinvent themselves:

Fourth-line centre Erik Haula was cut adrift by the Minnesota Wild, his previous career best was 15 goals, he scored 29 this season for the Knights.

‘Wild Bill’ William Karlson went from scoring 6 goals with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season to netting 43 with Vegas – third top scorer over all in the NHL.

Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury, another player brought in with the wave of expansion drafts has been another revelation. The 33-year-old changed ‘keeper coach and found a new lease of life.

In his first 10 games, Fleury posted a 1.53 goals-against average, a .951 save percentage and four shutouts. That carried through to the best regular season of his career.

Fun times

There’s been plenty of fun too; what’s Vegas without a show after all? This pre-game medieval show before the Los Angeles Kings playoff series opener caught the attention:

Not to everyone’s liking at this response from Drew Miller illustrates:

But there can be no denying that the Las Vegas Knights bring something different to the NHL.

Two stories one winner

Whatever the outcome of this remarkable Western Conference final, there’ll be a team in the Stanley Cup final that has never made it that far. Awaiting is the winner of the Eastern Conference final between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Airlines are putting on special direct flights from the Winnipeg City to Sin City with the hottest tickets in the desert being snapped up, thousands are watching the games in the street in Vegas and the party has already started:

 

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Author: Ken Browne
Ken Browne is a multimedia journalist for the Olympic Channel.