The Vegas Golden Knights have become a bigger story the deeper they’ve gone in the Stanley Cup playoffs and rightfully so. In finishing first in the Pacific Division and reaching the Western Conference final they’ve set high standards on and off the ice for first-year teams — and for established teams. They’re Cinderella in pads, with skates in place of glass slippers.
The Winnipeg Jets’ journey to the West final hasn’t generated nearly as much buzz, at least on this side of the U.S.-Canada border. They missed the playoffs the last two seasons, but they’ve become a compelling story too and they’re the last hope for a Canadian team to win the Cup this season.
The 1993 Montreal Canadiens were the last Canada-based team to prevail, and a sizeable contingent of fans who are eager to see that drought end have made the trip to Las Vegas for Game 3 of the West final, to be played Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena. WestJet, a Canada-based airline, added two extra nonstop flights between Winnipeg and Las Vegas this week, and those apparently have been popular.
The series is tied 1-1 after the Jets won the opener and the Golden Knights bounced back to win Game 2.
The fervor of Winnipeg fans doesn’t surprise Jets coach Paul Maurice.
“They’re having a great time. It’s its own little story and its own party,” he said after his team’s morning skate Wednesday. “We drive home from the game the other night [in Winnipeg], and it’s almost all residential the way I take home. And there’s three or four cars outside of almost everybody’s house, and they’ve got the TVs still on and they’re showing the highlights. Everybody’s having their own little good time with this. And the ones that are fortunate enough to get on a plane and come down, they want to keep it going.
“The thing I’ve gotten most [from fans] was ‘Good luck,’ at the start. ‘Hey it’s great.’ Now I’m getting, ‘I’m exhausted. I don’t think I can keep this up. It’s every other night.’ They’re invested in it and they’re spending money and emotional capital, and if they can get on a plane they’re doing it too but it’s a great story.”
It is. This version of the Jets — the second team to bear that name in Winnipeg after the original Jets moved to Arizona and became the Coyotes — had never been to the conference final. They easily disposed of Minnesota in five games and took out No. 1-ranked Nashville in seven. They effectively blend size and speed, and their trade deadline acquisition of center Paul Stastny from St. Louis gave them balance and depth. Mark Scheifele leads all playoff scorers with 12 goals, and he and teammate Blake Wheeler rank among the points leaders in the playoffs with 18 each. Dustin Byfuglien leads all defensemen with 15 points, and Kyle Connor is the top-scoring rookie with three goals and nine points.
They haven’t lost two straight games in postseason play, which speaks to their resilience.
“Pure luck — we’ve been lucky,” Wheeler said, jokingly. “I think we play our best hockey all year bouncing back. We lost a couple of games in a row [during the regular season] this year, but we always seem to bounce back from it. It always seems that when our backs are against the wall, it brings out the best in our group. It’s no guarantee here tonight, but we’re going to play our game and that will give us an opportunity.”
Winnipeg’s home arena, Bell MTS Place, is famous for staging whiteouts during playoff games, with fans wearing white — sometimes including face paint — and loudly supporting their team. The Golden Knights have created a similarly loud and grand show at their home games, but the Jets are looking forward to it and believe they’re well-prepared after having played in the noise and enthusiasm of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in the conference semifinals.
“A lot of our experience in the playoffs so far has been dealing with great atmospheres, and all year it’s been a great atmosphere here. Throughout the playoffs as well,” Wheeler said. “It makes it exciting playing against a team that plays well in their building. Great home fans. It’s the type of atmosphere you want to play in.”