EditorsNote: Changed to write-thru, updates with quotes, additional details throughout
An improbable goal-scorer lifted an improbable champion into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ryan Reaves’ tie-breaking goal in the second period Sunday enabled the Vegas Golden Knights to edge the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, clinching the Western Conference title for Vegas in its first season of existence.
A roster consisting almost entirely of other teams’ castoffs will meet either Tampa Bay or Washington for the Stanley Cup. The Lightning lead the Eastern Conference championship series 3-2, with Game 6 scheduled for Monday night in Washington.
“This is incredible,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said afterward. “With this group of guys, we come to the rink, everyone’s so happy to see each other. They trust they’ll do what it takes to win games.”
Reaves’ first goal of this postseason, and just his second career playoff goal, came at 13:21 of the second. Luca Sbisa took a wrister from the point that deflected off one stick before Reaves got his blade on it, tipping it off the crossbar and over the goal line.
The Golden Knights defended the lead fiercely from that point, getting 31 saves from Marc-Andre Fleury and keeping the Jets from overrunning their defensive zone, even when Winnipeg pulled goalie Connor Hellebuyck for a sixth skater in the last two minutes.
“Guys really hustled, you know?” Fleury said after the game. “We made plays getting it out of the zone, we had some chances, and it paid off.”
When asked if he’s playing the best hockey of his career, the 33-year-old replied, “You’re only as good as your team, you know?”
Vegas became the first expansion team to reach the Cup Finals since the St. Louis Blues, who played in a division of nothing but expansion teams after the NHL grew from six to 12 teams prior to the 1967-68 season.
As they have done throughout the series, the Golden Knights started fast. A failed clearing attempt by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey found the stick of Alex Tuch in the high slot. He wheeled and wired a wrister past Hellebuyck at 5:11 of the first period for his sixth playoff goal.
Vegas had a 15-3 advantage in shot attempts in the first nine minutes, but Winnipeg finally found some traction as its sellout crowd roared to life.
Morrissey atoned for his mistake by tying the game at 17:14 of the first with his first playoff goal. Bryan Little’s clean faceoff win found its way to Morrissey for a one-timer over Fleury’s glove.
Winnipeg evened the shot totals at 32 apiece by game’s end, but the Jets couldn’t solve Fleury.
“The goaltender was extraordinary,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “He’s playing lights-out right now.”
Vegas is now 12-3 in the postseason, going 6-1 at home and 6-2 on the road. If the Lightning advance from the East, they will hold home-ice advantage in the finals, but a Capitals appearance would give the Golden Knights home ice.
—Field Level Media