The first-year Vegas Golden Knights will play for the Stanley Cup, another remarkable achievement for a group that was thrown together last summer but bonded quickly and firmly and won the right to represent the NHL's Western Conference in the Cup Final.
Ryan Reaves' deflection of a shot by Luca Sbisa got past Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck in the second period on Sunday to give Vegas a 2-1 lead, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made it hold up in a victory that clinched the series in a shockingly fast five games.
The self-styled team of misfits and castoffs excelled throughout the series and finished it off under intense pressure from hostile fans at Winnipeg's Bell MTS Place. The Jets, whose 114-point performance during the regular season ranked them second in the NHL, were the last hope for a Canada-based team to bring the Cup north of the border. The last Canadian team to win the Cup was the 1993 Montreal Canadiens, who defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
The Jets had been enjoying an unlikely run of their own this spring but were held to seven goals in the last five games of the series after they won the opener 4-2. The Golden Knights swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and eliminated San Jose in six games in the second round.
The Golden Knights scored first on Sunday when a Winnipeg pass caromed off the skate of Vegas forward Ryan Carpenter and directly to Alex Tuch, who blasted it past Hellebuyck at 5:11 of the first period. But the Jets, after several minutes of sustained pressure, tied it at 17:14 when Bryan Little beat Vegas center William Karlsson on an offensive-zone faceoff and drew the puck back to Josh Morrissey, whose blast cleanly beat Fleury. He saved 31 other shots to enhance his chances of being named the most valuable player of the playoffs.
"We stuck together as a team and everything went well," Fleury said in a televised interview about the Golden Knights' ability to recover after losing the opener of the conference final.
Winnipeg native Reaves, whose father played for the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, regained the lead for Vegas with a deft deflection at 13:21 of the second period. The shot was taken by Sbisa, who was fortunate to find a shooting lane with so many bodies converging in the slot and around the net. Reaves, standing at the inner edge of the left circle, redirected the puck past Hellebuyck for his first point of these playoffs.
Vegas had acquired Reaves from Pittsburgh in a trade in February, seeking muscle and size to better balance out a team that's fast but not big. They had been expected to be sellers around the trade deadline and not buyers, with conventional wisdom suggesting they'd be a bad team in their first season. However, their early success led general manager George McPhee – one of three finalists for the GM of the Year award – to build up his team instead of breaking it down and trading prominent players for draft picks or youngsters, and his strategy succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.
The Golden Knights' opponent could be decided on Monday, when the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals play Game 6 of the East final. Tampa Bay holds a 3-2 series lead. A seventh game in that series, if necessary, would be played on Wednesday at Tampa Bay.