What started out as a promising West final for the Winnipeg Jets ended with a thud on Sunday.
The Jets didn't have an answer for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights' speed, pressure, transition game and their aggressive and acrobatic goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Golden Knights didn't have to rely as much on Fleury in the finale as they did in their previous three victories, but the Vegas netminder turned in 31 more saves in a 2-1 win at the Bell MTS Place for a 4-1 series victory.
Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves scored the game winner, as the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Winnipeg Jets 2-1, eliminating them in five games. 1:50
The remarkable ride for the expansion Golden Knights will continue with an unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup final against the winner of the East between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals.
It only was eight days ago that the Jets appeared like they were going to be the team representing the West, winning the series opener 4-2. They rode the momentum from their seven-game victory against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators.
Winnipeg, however, never enjoyed a lead the rest of the series, mustering only six goals in the last four games. Fleury was spectacular and so were the 18 players in front of him. They skated and put pressure on the Jets. After the rare occasion Winnipeg would score a goal, the Golden Knights had the ability to respond swiftly with a tally of their own.
Running on empty?
Maybe the Jets had nothing left in the tank — but Paul Maurice doesn't think that was the case.
"I don't think we ran out of gas at all," Winnipeg's coach said. "I think we lost some sharpness. When you look at the second half of our last two games, especially, we were driving as hard as we could. There was fuel in the tank, there was a hard and heavy push, and it was right. The compete was as good in the series as it had been all year.
The Jets coach spoke to the media after his team was eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights. 1:26
"The will was still there. You can't ask [Jets captain] Blake Wheeler to play any harder straight through. That's as good as it gets from a human being. He pushed hard. But there were things that didn't happen for us in this. Some of it was mental and the physical fatigue that it took us to get here."
Winnipeg surrendered the first goal for the fourth game in a row, but they managed to pull even off a Bryan Little face-off win for a Josh Morrissey goal. The young Jets defenceman redeemed himself for his giveaway that resulted in Vegas' goal from Alex Tuch earlier in the first period. But the Golden Knights were relentless the rest of the way.
Winnipeg-born Ryan Reaves, a fourth liner, deflected home a Luca Sbisa shot with 6:39 remaining in the second period, for his first playoff game-winning goal. Winnipeg was completely shutdown in the final 20 minutes.
Vegas scored the go-ahead goal in Game 5 shortly after Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was forced to swap masks and wait for a repair. 1:01
No guarantees for next year
But the Jets will get another shot at a Stanley Cup championship next year, won't they?
Winnipeg has plenty of cap space. Paul Stastny, Toby Enstrom, Matt Hendricks, Shawn Matthias and third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson are the only unrestricted free agents. Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp, Joel Armia, Brandon Tanev, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Tucker Poolman, Joe Morrow and goalie Connor Hellebuyck are restricted free agents.
But there are no guarantees. Just ask the Ottawa Senators after their run to the East final a year ago. Or the Edmonton Oilers, who missed the playoffs after advancing to the second round last spring.
"There is nothing permanent and nothing given and your season prior doesn't guarantee you anything the next year," Maurice said. "You have to get comfortable that you're starting at ground zero with everybody else and the fact that you can miss, you can also win.
"I'm not saying we arrived because we didn't get to the place we wanted to. So we have to go back and get stronger and more mature in our game so that we are preparing ourselves for this event again, but certainly not waiting until we get here again to be good. The idea that we're a playoff team now because you were a playoff team last year and things will be different is a foolish way to think."
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