Las Vegas — The Vegas Golden Knights were a 500-to-1 long shot to win the Stanley Cup before the NHL season began in October. Their surprisingly successful inaugural season is still rolling along, and they’re one win from a berth to the Stanley Cup final.
Reilly Smith scored on a breakaway late in the third period to lead Vegas to a 3-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 4 of the Western Conference final Friday night.
Vegas can clinch the conference title and advance to the Stanley Cup final when the series resumes Sunday in Winnipeg.
“The last one is always the toughest to get,” Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.
William Karlsson and Tomas Nosek also scored for Vegas, and Fleury, ninth all-time in postseason wins, turned in another spectacular performance by making 36 saves to earn his 73rd career playoff victory. The 14-year veteran goalie, left exposed by the Pittsburgh Penguins for Vegas to select him in the expansion draft, continues to have a career-best postseason as he aims for a third straight Stanley Cup title.
“I think we’ve got to keep the same mindset,” said Fleury, who has a 1.72 goals against average and .945 save percentage in the playoffs. “Just take it one game at time and not think too far ahead and be ready to play that next game, because they’re going to be coming hard.”
It’s something the Jets have already been doing, even in their three losses in the series.
Asked how his team has been able to survive Winnipeg’s tenacious attack, Smith replied: “He’s sitting right next to me,” referring to Fleury at the postgame news conference.
But with the game tied at 2, it was Smith who made the big play after racing down the left side of the rink and beating Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck above his blocker to put the Golden Knights ahead with 6:58 left.
Hellebuyck made 27 saves, but lost for the third consecutive game despite telling reporters after Game 3 that he liked his game better than Fleury’s. Patrik Laine and Tyler Myers scored for Winnipeg, which is on the brink of elimination.
“I know we can win a game, we’re a good enough team,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “We’ve battled. We’ve gone into some pretty heavy environments and won a game that we needed to win. So it’s just one game.”
The Jets took over where they left off in the third period of Game 3 by outskating the Golden Knights in the first period of Game 4, but Karlsson’s power-play goal was the difference. Off the draw, Smith found Jonathan Marchessault, who fed Karlsson for the one-timer that gave Vegas a 1-0 lead.
In a case of deja vu from Game 3, when Vegas responded 12 seconds after giving up a 1-0 lead, Winnipeg and the Golden Knights traded goals 43 seconds apart midway through the second period.
First, it was Laine’s one-timer on the power play that even Fleury wasn’t catching up to and it tied the game at the 9:29 mark. Then, it was Hellebuyck failing to secure a shot by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who raced to the puck and fed Nosek, who punched in his first career playoff goal to put Vegas up 2-1.
“It’s a good way to be, when they get one, the next guy’s up and ready to go,” said Golden Knights forward James Neal, who is looking to make it to the Stanley Cup final for a second consecutive year after getting there with Nashville last season. “It’s always hard when you get one and the other team scores right away, it kind of takes the wind right back out of you. For us being at home, it just energizes the building. As soon as it sucks the wind out, boom, huge goal, and we’re back.
“That was a great goal by Nose.”
The Jets outshot the Golden Knights 12-2 by the midway point of the third period - including Myers’ tying goal - keeping Fleury busy. But the three-time Cup champion was finished allowing anything in his net.
“We win that game nine times out of 10 - tonight was that one,” Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler said. “Their goalie made some extraordinary saves, he’s a good player. You’ve got to sometimes take your hat off to a good player.”
Series tied 2-2
Game 1: Washington 4, Tampa Bay 2
Game 2: Washington 6, Tampa Bay 2
Game 3: Tampa Bay 4, Washington 2
Game 4: Tampa Bay 4, Washington 2
Saturday: Washington at Tampa Bay, 7:15
x-Monday: Tampa Bay at Washington, 8
x-Wednesday: Washington at Tampa Bay, 8
Vegas leads 3-1
Game 1: Winnipeg 4, Vegas 2
Game 2: Vegas 3, Winnipeg 1
Game 3: Vegas 4, Winnipeg 2
Game 4: Vegas 3, Winnipeg 2
Sunday: Vegas at Winnipeg, 3
x-Tuesday: Winnipeg at Vegas, 9
x-Thursday: Vegas at Winnipeg, 8