WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The Winnipeg Jets were in rhythm and the Vegas Golden Knights looked rusty.
Or, maybe the Jets are just that good.
Dustin Byfuglien scored about a minute after the puck dropped and Winnipeg built a three-goal lead early in the first period and went on to beat Vegas 4-2 on Saturday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
While the Jets played at home less than 48 hours after advancing past top-seeded Nashville on the road, the Golden Knights were off for nearly a week after eliminating San Jose in the second round.
“We didn’t have much of a rest,” Byfuglien said. “We’re still in game mode.”
Patrik Laine and Joel Armia had goals 46 seconds apart to put the Jets up 3-0. Mark Scheifele gave Winnipeg a 4-1 lead midway on a power play through the second period with his 12th goal this postseason.
Brayden McNabb scored midway through the first and William Karlsson had a power-play goal late in the second period to pull Vegas within two, but the expansion team couldn’t get closer.
“We were chasing the game all night,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said.
Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck made 18 saves.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 shots for the Golden Knights, whose Stanley Cup-winning goalie has given up at least three goals for the fifth time in six games.
“He’s the best goalie in the playoffs as far as I’m concerned,” Gallant said.
Fleury and the Golden Knights will have to be at, or near, their best when the Jets host Game 2 on Monday night before the series shifts to Las Vegas.
“Next game, no excuses,” Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault said. “Everybody needs to come and be ready to play our best game of the playoffs.
“We’re going to show what kind of team we are.”
Winnipeg, which is making its deepest playoff run in franchise history, started strong and fast. Vegas, meanwhile, didn’t appear anything like the team that took the league by storm in its record-breaking inaugural season.
The Jets’ fast, deep and talented team had 114 points this season and trailed only the Predators’ league-high total by three points. Their success has carried over into the postseason, winning all three Game 1s and avoiding trailing a series.
The hard-charging, smooth-passing Jets put the Pacific Division champions on their heels right from the start and didn’t relent.
“We did take advantage of being game ready,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said.
White-clad, towel-twirling raucous fans in the arena – and packed on surrounding streets – were fired up before the game started. And, they were given plenty of opportunities to celebrate in the opening minutes.
Byfuglien’s slap shot 1:05 into the game off a drop pass from Scheifele put Winnipeg up 1-0. That ignited the party-like atmosphere in a relatively cozy arena with just 16,345 seats and a low ceiling.
“That was huge for us,” Jets center Paul Stastny said. “Early in the game, too. And then all of the sudden it gave life to everyone, everyone on the bench, the crowd.”
Fleury had no shot to stop Laine’s one-timer from the left circle off Wheeler’s cross-ice pass on a power play at the 6:49 mark of the first. Armia had a goal waved off less than a minute later only to have it restored by a challenge, which overturned the goaltender interference call on the ice.
“Sometimes getting your legs a little bit under you takes a few minutes here and they took advantage of it,” Fleury said.
After the flurry of goals early, the Jets were able to play conservatively to cut down on Vegas’ comeback chances.
“We were getting the puck deep,” Scheifele said. “We weren’t fooling around with it in the neutral zone.”
The Golden Knights pulled Fleury to add an extra skater late in the game, but had to put him back on the ice because there was a faceoff near him. They sent him to the bench again and had some chances to pull within one, but the shot-blocking Jets didn’t let the puck get to Hellebuyck much.
NOTES: The last time two teams were in the NHL conference finals for the first time was 2003 when Anaheim swept Minnesota. … Scheifele has four more goals than any player still in the postseason. … Fleury, a former Pittsburgh Penguin, has four shutouts this postseason and has allowed four goals in three games.
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