Winnipeg ultimately fell to the NHL’s first-year squad, the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Finals Sunday afternoon. The Knights calmly rode into town and finished off the Jets 2-1 on a warm spring day from Bell MTS Place.
Winnipeg was a team filled with youngsters and veterans hoping for their shot at building a deep playoff run after an exceptionally successful regular season. Whereas the Knights were laced with the most conference final playoff experience of any 2018 playoff team not named Tampa Bay. In the end, experience trumped regular season success. The Golden Knights are off to the Cup.
Prior to puck drop Sunday, Jets’ Head Coach Paul Maurice made some lineup changes, pulling defencemen Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot from the starting 20, as well as forward Andrew Copp, while Dmitry Kulikov, Joe Morrow and Joel Armia drew into the plans for Winnipeg, alongside Jack Roslovic. Kulikov had not skated in a game in 73 days, while Morrow hadn’t seen game action since the first round against Minnesota.
The first period of game five began much like previous meetings between the two Western Conference foes. Jonathan Marchessault collected the first shot of the game for the third straight time – this one coming just 19 seconds in. Winnipeg’s netminder Connor Hellebuyck calmly turned it aside, and the game began.
Again, in similar fashion to the previous three games, Vegas struck first on a bad Jets giveaway. With just 5:11 off the clock, defenceman Josh Morrissey collected a bouncing puck in the Winnipeg end and had his pass deflect off the skate of forechecker Ryan Carpenter. The puck found itself perfectly on the stick of Alex Tuch, who wasted little time beating Connor Hellebuyck for the first goal of the game.
With yet another Saturday evening concert at Bell MTS Place, the ice and boards within the arena certainly may not have been up to snuff, as the puck appeared to bounce quite bizarrely off the dasher board and then the referee, before leading directly to the Tuch marker.
Instead of allowing his early error to determine the rest of the game, Morrissey bounced back tremendously, bringing his teammates right back into the game with less than three minutes to go in the opening frame. It was his mess-up, fess-up, dress-up mentality that secured Winnipeg it’s first goal of the game.
On an offensive zone faceoff late in the period, centreman Bryan Little directed traffic as to where he wanted his wingers and defencemen to line up. It took less than two seconds from the dropping of the puck drop for Morrissey to step into a one-timer off the draw. The howitzer found its way past Fleury’s glove, top shelf, knotting the game up at ones with less than three minutes to play in the first.
For the first time in the series, the Jets did not allow the Golden Knights to score within a minute-and-a-half of their equalizer. After falling behind 7-2 in the shot department through the midway point of the first period, Winnipeg stepped up and recorded the game’s next 10 shots, jumping ahead 12-7 – including the blistering strike from Morrissey. The first period ended with the teams tied on the scoreboard, and Winnipeg holding slight lead in the shots department, 13-8.
With just under seven minutes to go in the second period, a hard James Neal wrist shot caught Hellebuyck in the side of the head, busting the clip off of one of his helmet straps, causing a short delay.
Hellebuyck’s backup mask was delivered to the now 25-year-old netminder (who celebrated his birthday Saturday) and he reluctantly put it on in preparation for the ensuing faceoff. It took Vegas just 15 seconds to beat Hellebuyck and his new mask.
In waiting for the perfect screen, the Knights threw a point shot to the net that bounced off a conglomeration of bodies before eventually being redirected past Hellebuyck by Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves, handing Vegas its second lead of the game with 6:39 to go in the middle period. Hellebuyck wasted little time storming to the Jets’ bench to retrieve his regular (albeit damaged) mask immediately following the Reaves marker.
Hellebuyck bounced back rather swiftly after the Reaves deflection, stopping every other puck he face, blocking 30 of Vegas’ 32 shots in Sunday’s matinee.
“Luck was definitely on their side,” said Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck following Sunday’s contest. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought we worked really hard this series, and did the right things. Our details were right. It’s crazy the way that these games ended up.”
Winnipeg’s best opportunity of the second period came shortly after the visitors’ go-ahead goal, as Nikolaj Ehlers rung a quick shot directly off the Golden Knights’ post. Vegas made strides in the shot department through 40 minutes, trailing Winnipeg by just one shot, 24-23 after two periods of play.
The third period provided opportunities for both teams, but neither the Jets nor the Knights could buy a goal in the final 20 minutes of play. With Hellebuyck on the bench for the extra attacker, Blake Wheeler had the best opportunity for Winnipeg, but Fleury’s right foot kept the puck out of the net for 31st time of the game.
The three-time Stanley Cup winner stopped 31 of 32 shots, and collected his 12th victory of the postseason Sunday. Fleury will now have the chance at a three-peat as he was a part of Pittsburgh’s back-to-back cups in 2015-6 and 2016-17. His Knights will either go up against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals or Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals, beginning in one week’s time.
“I’m just so happy,” Fleury said immediately following Sunday’s victory. “It’s been a long journey for us since they’ve put this team together. I’m really proud of my teammates and how they have been playing all season long. Again, tonight they played a great game and we’re going to the final. You just play as good as the guys in front of you. They played great all series, all season, and again tonight they blocked a lot of shots, helped me out around the net; it’s been a lot of fun.”
Winnipeg was unable to score on the power play in game five, going 0-4 with the man advantage. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort, as Fleury and his defensive teammates managed to keep the Jets working from the outside in, and the puck away from the goal line.
“It’s crazy, a little unexpected,” Fleury added. “As a player that is what you want to do and achieve every season, you know, get to the Cup. I don’t think anybody expected it from around the league, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’m very proud and happy of my teammates that we made it here.”
After scoring three goals in the first period of game one, Winnipeg only managed six more goals over the course of the next fourteen periods. Vegas required only 15 games to reach the Finals, going 12-3 in the process. Sunday’s game-winner was the first registered ‘shot’ on net of the series for Winnipegger Ryan Reaves, who deflected a second period strike past Hellebuyck for the lead.
“Their goaltender was extraordinary,” Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler said after game five. “There were numerous times that the puck was in spots where it looked like it was in the net or going in the net. He’s (Fleury) playing lights out right now. But that’s why it’s four rounds. If you cant withstand that and get through the next round then you don’t deserve to win.”
Following the traditional player and coach handshakes at centre ice, the Winnipeg Jets gave their fans one final salute and a chance at the final in-arena ‘go Jets go’ chant until the fall.
The Clarence S. Campbell Bowl was then presented to Vegas native Deryk Engelland and his teammates as the Western Conference champions. Engelland made the decision (with some help from Fleury) to touch the trophy and bring it back to the Knights’ dressing room with his teammates.
The last three times that Fleury’s teammates had touched the conference championship trophy upon acceptance, his team had gone on to victory in the Finals.
With an exceptionally successful 99-game season, the Winnipeg Jets will now have a few months off before the start of training camp for the 2018-19 season. Although swallowing the pill from this series loss to Vegas in the Western Conference Finals will be extremely difficult, next season’s team should be even tougher.
“This team’s got the character,” Hellebuyck said of his teammates. “We’ve got the heart and the character, and those are two things that you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t, and this team has it.”