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This article was published 20/5/2018 (1218 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They mowed through Minnesota and knocked off Nashville, looking every bit like a team that had a date with destiny.
But that dream died in stunning fashion Sunday afternoon at Bell MTS Place, as the Winnipeg Jets had their greatest season in franchise history abruptly ended by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights who appear to be on their way to a storybook finish of their own.
A 2-1 loss was Winnipeg's fourth straight in the Western Conference final. It sends Vegas into the Stanley Cup final, where they will play either Tampa Bay or Washington for the ultimate prize in hockey.
"I thought this was our year," said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who consoled several exhausted teammates on the ice after the buzzer and then was on the verge of tears in a mostly silent dressing room. "You could see how hard everyone was working. How much everyone wanted it. That’s why this one’s tough."
Like so much about the Vegas story this season, their latest accomplishment comes with a pretty incredible story. Because it was Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves — a fourth-line grinder who actually started this season in Pittsburgh — who scored the series-clinching goal for the Golden Knights.
What makes this series loss even more surprising is how it started.
Winnipeg, fresh off disposing of the league's top-regular season team by winning Game 7 in Nashville, scored three times in the first 7:35 of an electric first period against Vegas on the way to an eventual 4-2 lead.
It was going to be easy, right?
"We won two series, we beat the No.1 team in the league, so the sky's the limit at this point. And then you have to win two more series. Yeah, that's why it's the hardest trophy to win in sports," said forward Mathieu Perreault. "It's hard to believe it's over, really. We tried so hard, too. We left it all out there. It's so disappointing when you put so much effort into it and the result's just not there. It's hard to swallow."
It was all Vegas from that point on, as the Golden Knights never trailed again all series and the Jets never quite looked themselves.
"A couple of games got away from us and then just hard battling in those games, we always battled back to tie it up and then always gave them one back not too long after. That was the story of the series," said Perreault.
"You're not scoring, you're not winning. It's definitely frustrating. It's hard to believe it's all over. We really thought we were going to do it this year. We had that great feeling, we felt like we had the team to do it. It just wasn't meant to be."
It was an ugly start by Winnipeg on Sunday that once again proved costly.
Josh Morrissey gave the puck away right on to the stick of Alex Tuch, who beat Hellebuyck just 5:11 into the game for the 1-0 lead. It was the fourth straight game Vegas opened the scoring, all in the first period.
The goal came after several other egregious giveaways and close calls for the Jets. Veteran centre Paul Stastny said the poor starts by his team may have been a case of "playoff jitters" creeping into their game.
"That's conference hockey. I think playoffs in general, games are so tough, whether it's a bounce here or a goal here, a momentum goal to change it. But a bunch of one-goal games that could have gone either way. So there might have been some that we thought we should have, we didn't and sometimes you've just got to take it like it is," said Stastny.
Coach Paul Maurice believes that uncharacteristic sloppy play was a product of his team not being as mentally sharp as needed, which could be a product of coming off such a tough series with Nashville.
"First of all, in the end when you add it all up, they were good. They were real good. Did not give any easy offence. We had to grind and work and work for the chances that we did get. There's a cost to that. And it stacked up, and coming off of what we did to get here," said Maurice.
"There were some things that at times during the year, and maybe the playoffs are a different animal, but were easier for us. Clean things, on the tape, pucks off the tape a little quicker, that became difficult for us. The right thing to do is to make sure you give the other team credit. They did a good job with that."
Maurice had tried to inject some life into his squad with three lineup changes Sunday. Defencemen Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot, and forward Andrew Copp, were all scratched. Dmitry Kulikov, playing his first game since March 8 due to injury, plus blue-liner Joe Morrow and forward Joel Armia replaced them.
With their season hanging by a thread, Winnipeg got its legs going as the first period progressed, rattling off 11 straight shots toward the end of the frame. And one came from Morrissey, who redeemed himself for the earlier miscue by hammering home a shot from the point with just under three minutes left.
The Jets had some glorious looks to take the lead in the middle period, including a Little feed to Perreault which the veteran forward just whiffed on. Winnipeg also got a pair of power plays, including one where a Vegas defender broke his stick essentially turning it into a 5-on-3.
"Just couldn’t score. I think we had a lot of chances. Just couldn’t capitalize. I think that was one of the reasons why we’re out," said Patrik Laine. "Just for me, I couldn’t shoot. I don’t know what was wrong with that, I had a lot of good chances, just couldn’t hit the puck or the net."
The inability to take a lead would come back to haunt them against the opportunistic Golden Knights. Their fourth-line won an offensive zone face-off and Reaves got a stick on a Luca Sbisa point shot that beat Hellebuyck with just under seven minutes left in the period.
"They made it really tough for us. We had to work for everything we got and even when we broke them down, we just couldn’t seem to ever gain the type of momentum we needed to get this thing on our terms," said captain Blake Wheeler.
Winnipeg did come out with some desperation to start the third. Defenceman Jacob Trouba jumped into the play and powered his way to the net in the opening minute, drawing yet another power play for his club. But the Jets couldn't do anything with it.
They finished the game 0-for-4 with the man advantage, and just 1-for-10 over the past three games when they really could have used a goal or two. Vegas went 0-for-2 Sunday.
"Every game was tight. Every game was a matter of inches, almost. They capitalized when they needed the chance and it just sucks," said Jets centre Mark Scheifele.
Unlike Game 3 and Game 4, there was no big third-period push by the Jets in this one. They were actually outshot 9-8 by Vegas, with Hellebuyck forced to make big saves against William Karlsson and Erik Haula just to keep his team within striking distance.
It ultimately went for naught as Winnipeg couldn't find the equalizer.
"Throughout this whole thing until that buzzer blew, I never thought we were out of it, never thought we wouldn’t find a way back into it. It just seemed like every time we grabbed some momentum, they took it. So we can use whatever we want to do, but you have to give them a ton of credit for doing that. It’s the sign of a good team," said Wheeler.
"It was their time. They’re just playing really well. And you have to give them all the credit. Typically in a seven-game series, the better team wins. Coming into it, I thought we had the best team. I felt that way and obviously I’m a little bit biased, standing in this room feeling that we had a great opportunity. And that team just ... it was their time."
Maurice said he doesn't believe his team "ran out of gas," even if it may have looked that way at times.
"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. So there was fuel in the tank. There was a hard and heavy push and it was right. The compete was as good in this series, certainly in pieces of the game, as it's been all year," said Maurice. "But a lot of the plays did not come off our stick the way they had prior to it, and it wasn't a matter of tightness. Our hands felt it. Your brain goes a little slower, it gets off your stick a little quicker, your reads are a little slower. But the will was still there."
The will might have been, but they couldn't find a way to beat Marc-Andre Fleury with any regularity. The three-time Cup winner finished Sunday's game with 31 saves and stopped 151 of the 161 shots he faced in this series, for a .938 save percentage.
"They had the best goalie in the league right now. He stood on his head. He made a lot of big saves. Their D played solid, played solid in their D zone. And obviously it was the difference," said Scheifele.
"Their goaltender was extraordinary. There were numerous times the puck was in spots where it looked like it was in the net or going in the net. And he’s playing lights out right now," added Wheeler.
Hellebuyck finished the game with 30 saves and an overall .906 save percentage.
"It’s hard for me to depict it. I thought we were the better team. But they’re walking away with a 4-1 (win). I don’t know. I don’t know," Hellebuyck said. "I still think we did things right, got our chances. Luck was on their side, definitely. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even their goals (Sunday) were two tips. I don’t know. It’s tough to swallow."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.