- In a season already filled with history, the Vegas Golden Knights made a little more, beating the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 to win the Western Conference and earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Vegas Golden Knights continue to make history, this time thanks to an unlikely source.
Winger Ryan Reaves, a Winnipeg native known more for his hardened fists than his soft hands, tipped in a shot from defenseman Lucas Sbisa into the top corner behind Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck at 13:21 of the second period, a goal that would stand as the winner and send the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final on the heels of a 2-1 win in Game 5 that clinched the Western Conference Final.
It was Reaves's first goal with Vegas after coming over from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, and it couldn't have come at a better—or bigger—time.
"It’s been a while since I scored and helped a team on the score sheet," he said. "The points for me doesn’t matter. If we’re getting the wins, that’s enough for me. It was definitely special; and I’m glad that I got the one in front of Winnipeg."
Being a villain in his hometown did provide him with some unique experience, though.
"Hearing the boos after I scored was probably my favorite [moment] of the series," he said. "It’s been a little weird. I have a couple cousins that came in Jets jerseys, a best friend that came in a white t-shirt. They’re going to hear about that after."
Alex Tuch also scored for the Golden Knights, notching the opening goal on a snap shot from the slot as part of an early stretch that saw Vegas outshoot the Jets 7-2 in the first half of the first period.
Winnipeg came roaring back, however, firing another 11 shots in the final 10 minutes of the frame, including Josh Morrissey's blast off of an offensive zone faceoff, beating Marc-Andre Fleury high-glove side for his first career playoff goal to knot the score.
Fleury wouldn't be beaten again, finishing the afternoon with 31 saves to frustrate the Jets in their final game of the season. In reeling off four straight wins to eliminate the Jets, Fleury racked up a 1.50 goals-against average and stopped 129 of 135 shots for a .956 save percentage. The three-time Cup winner is now in position to battle it out for a fourth after getting his 74th career postseason win, good for an eighth-place tie in NHL history.
"I think you’re only as good as your team," Fleury told NBC's Brian Boucher. "The guys in front of me have been great and they’ve been helping me a lot. It’s been a lot of fun."
The Golden Knights, who started the season at 500-1 Stanley Cup odds, now await their opponent for the Final. Whether it's the Capitals or the Lightning, it's a safe bet that Vegas will be ready to make just a little more history this year.
For now, though, they're content to enjoy what's been a long, strange journey for a team that was put together less than a year ago. The Golden Knights are now just the second expansion team in NHL history to make the Cup Final since 1968, when the Blues fell to the Canadiens in four games in a season when the entire West Division was made up of six first-year squads.
"I don’t think we would have been able to put this on paper to begin the year," defenseman Nate Schmidt said to Sportsnet's Scott Oake. "We believe in ourselves and that’s been the key for this thing. Everyone trusts each other in that room and everyone wants to go to battle for each other."
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT
No one could have seen Ryan Reaves netting the game-winner in what is (to date) the biggest game in Vegas Golden Knights franchise history—Connor Hellebuyck certainly didn't.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury, VGK — He was cool, calm and collected. Fleury will get some Conn Smythe consideration, no matter what happens in the Final.
2. Ryan Reaves, VGK — Ryan Reaves, Playoff Hero? Folks, it's a thing now.
3. Connor Hellebuyck, WPG — The Jets goalie made 30 saves on the afternoon, keeping his team in the thick of it while staring down flurries of shots.
It wasn’t all that long ago the Washington Capitals were on their way back to D.C. with a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. Fast forward a few days and one trip to Tampa and back and the Capitals find themselves in a much different position, returning to Capital One Arena following three straight losses with a do-or-die Game 6 on tap for Monday. There’s little panic, however, on a team that’s already busted a number of narratives this postseason. They’re planning on ending a few more. “Our team this year definitely wasn't a Cinderella story, but I think for being a division winner, we had to claw our way most of the season," defenseman John Carlson said. "Things didn't always go our way. I think we can draw from that for what's upcoming for us."
The Lightning, on the other hand, have some momentum on their side after ripping off three consecutive wins, but they’re not taking anything for granted with a hungry Washington team aching to force a Game 7. "We have a lot of unfinished business,” Bolts forward Ryan Callahan said. “This isn't even close to being over. This last game is definitely the hardest. Against a very, very good Washington team and to go in their building and try to close them out, it's going to be tough." A win would send Tampa Bay back to the Stanley Cup Final, where the Lightning fell to the Blackhawks in 2015.