WINNIPEG, Manitoba — For a brief moment after the final horn Sunday, the decibel level dropped at Bell MTS Place and the white-clad crowd of 15,321 stood in shock.
They couldn’t believe it, either.
The Golden Knights will play for the Stanley Cup.
Powered by another magnificent showing from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and contributions throughout the lineup, the expansion club extended their record-breaking season with a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets to close out the Western Conference Final in five games.
The Knights are the third team in NHL history to reach the Cup final in their inaugural season, joining the 1918 Toronto Arenas and 1968 St. Louis Blues.
They will meet either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals when the finals begin at a date to be determined. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference Final 3-2.
“It’s been an awesome ride so far,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “We won three series, we’re going to the Stanley Cup Final. But, again, this isn’t what we want. We want to win. Every team has got a chance to win now in the NHL. The teams are so close. We’re far from satisfied. We’ve got a big series to get ready for.
“Like I said, it’s great to win tonight and it’s great to be the Western Conference champions, but that’s not what we’re here for.”
Ryan Reaves, a Winnipeg native, tipped in the winning goal at 13:21 of the second period, and Alex Tuch scored in the first period for the Knights.
Fleury, the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite as playoff MVP, finished with 31 saves and stymied the high-scoring Jets throughout the series.
Winnipeg, which was second in the league in goals per game (3.33) during the regular season, managed 10 goals in the five games against the Knights. And four of those came in Game 1, the Jets’ lone victory in the series.
“He’s been our best player all year,” forward Cody Eakin said of Fleury. “You go up and down the lineup and guys have stepped up at different times, but he consistently has been our rock, the guy that has held us in games and made those key stops.”
Reaves, who did not score for the Knights after he was acquired three days before the trade deadline in February, redirected Luca Sbisa’s shot from the point past Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (30 saves) to put the Knights ahead 2-1.
Reaves dropped to one knee and pumped his fist in celebration after his second career postseason goal.
“Hearing the boos after I scored was probably my favorite moment of this series,” Reaves said.
Fleury made a key save on Kyle Connor at the end of a Winnipeg power play early in the third period. But unlike in Games 3 and 4 at T-Mobile Arena when the Jets dominated the final 20 minutes, the Knights didn’t sit back.
Winnipeg had a chance in the final second when the puck bounced toward Mark Scheifele. However, Knights center William Karlsson tracked back and the NHL’s leading goal scorer in the postseason never got off a shot.
David Perron was the first Knights player over the boards as the horn sounded, and the rest of the players stormed Fleury moments later to begin the celebration.
“If you go back to the beginning of the season, obviously your goal is always to make the playoffs,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “But if I were to guess I would be sitting here doing this right now, you would be a little skeptical at the time.
“But once we got rolling and got the season going, we saw we have a team that can do some damage and a phenomenal goalie that’s going to stop everything. It’s been an amazing ride. We just want to keep it going now.”
Winnipeg recorded a league-best 32 home wins during the regular season, but it was the Knights who came out buzzing in an effort to close out the series.
Ryan Carpenter forced Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey into a bad pass that went off the skate of the Knights forward. Tuch pounced on the loose puck and beat Hellebuyck 5:11 into the first period, as the Knights scored the first goal for the fourth consecutive game.
“The biggest thing of our game tonight was the first eight minutes of the hockey game,” Gallant said. “The second half of that period they took it to us pretty good. But, again, when you come on the road and you’re playing against a great team like Winnipeg, I thought those first seven minutes were huge for our team.”
Winnipeg recovered and carried the play for the remainder of the first period, tying the score with 2:46 left.
Morrissey made up for his earlier mistake when he sent a rocket past Fleury’s glove after an offensive zone faceoff win by Bryan Little.
“There’s definitely low expectations for us. But the belief was high from us,” Jonathan Marchessault said. “When we started to win those few games, it keeps going all year. It’s the same thing from the beginning of the year. Everybody talked about we’re going to let go at some point. We’re going to let go. We just love to go against the haters. That’s what everybody is fueled off.”
1. Peaks and valleys. The Golden Knights got off to a strong start in the first period and led after 5:11 through Alex Tuch. But they were outshot 12-1 in final 12:54 of the first period and went 11:20 without a shot on goal. Didn’t matter, of course.
2. Scary moment. Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury appeared to be slightly shaken up with 11:04 remaining in the second period when he stretched to deny Mathieu Perreault’s chance on the doorstep. Fleury went to the bench during the TV timeout and talked to the trainers, but obviously stayed in the game.
3. Home away from home. The Knights closed out their third straight series on the road after victories at Los Angeles and San Jose in the first two rounds. They are the seventh team in NHL history to clinch three series on the road en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
David Schoen Review-Journal