To get to this point, Vegas needed to get the better of a desperate Winnipeg Jets team in Game 4. While Winnipeg gave the Knights as much as they could handle — at least in the latter half of the contest — Vegas held on to defeat the Jets 3-2, earning its third straight victory in the conference final.
As always, let’s dive right in and review some observations.
1. Smith steps up in clutch time
With the game tied at two goals apiece, someone wearing a steel grey and gold sweater needed to make a play. And that someone ended up being Reilly Smith.
The Jets had taken complete control for much of the final period. They were swarming in the Vegas zone, constantly peppering Marc-Andre Fleury with shots in any way they could.
But the Knights caught a break.
Brandon Tanev tried to hit Dustin Byfuglien at the point with what appeared to be a routine feed, but Byfuglien fanned on the one-timer and allowed Smith to break loose for what would eventually become the game-winning goal; a sick bar-down wrister from just above the near faceoff circle.
Smith has potted only two goals this postseason, but leads all Golden Knights players with 14 assists in the playoffs. He was due for a big goal, and he got it in spectacular fashion to lift Vegas over Winnipeg in Game 4.
2. Nosek with a terrific performance
Tomas Nosek, along with the rest of Vegas’ fourth line, saw a ton of success in Game 4. Nosek tied with Ryan Reaves (!) for the team lead in Corsi For percentage at 5v5 (61.54) with the duo also leading the Knights in SCF% at 5v5 (83.33).
Nosek had to deal with some adversity in Game 4, though. Just prior to scoring his first-ever postseason goal, he was assessed a two-minute penalty for tripping Jacob Trouba in the offensive zone, eventually leading to Patrik Laine’s game-tying goal. But on his very next shift, he took matters into his own hands and reclaimed the lead just 43 seconds later.
Speaking of which...
3. Vegas’ resilience continues
The Golden Knights have developed an uncanny ability of responding immediately after allowing a goal. It’s happened in all four of their postseason games against the Jets, and it’s played a large role in their success in the conference final.
In Game 1, Joel Armia gave Winnipeg an early 3-0 lead, but Brayden McNabb scored just 35 second later to slow the Jets’ momentum. In Game 2, Kyle Connor scored a power-play tally to cut the Vegas lead in half, but Jonathan Marchessault answered just 88 seconds later with a filthy backhander on Connor Hellebuyck. In Game 3, Mark Schiefele beat Fleury off a fluky deflection to tie the game at one goal apiece, only to have James Neal reclaim the Vegas lead just 12 seconds later. Then, of course, we have Nosek’s goal from Game 4.
The Knights’ ability to steal the momentum at will is simply astounding. As if scoring on them wasn’t already difficult in itself.
4. Fleury spectacular once again
We can’t go a game without talking about the excellent play of Marc-Andre Fleury. At 33 years old, he’s playing the best hockey of his life and continues to make ridiculous highlight-reel saves in key moments for the Golden Knights.
Of course, Game 4 was just another day in the office.
Fleury ended up stopping 35 of the Jets’ 37 shots, earning his 11th win of the playoffs. His current postseason totals are as follows; 1.72 goals against average, .945 save percentage, four shutouts, 11-3 record.
5. Schmidt keeps up the elite play
Nate Schmidt has been a revelation on the Vegas blueline all postseason. We discussed his fantastic defensive play following Game 2, but he put his offensive capabilities on full display in Game 4.
Not long after the midway point of the first period, Schmidt made a pretty play to spring William Karlsson for a scoring chance. Surveying the ice in the defensive zone, Schmidt is challenged by Mark Scheifele. Schmidt then shakes off Scheifele, darts up ice and banks a pass to a Vegas attacker waiting in the offensive zone, who softly moves the puck to Karlsson for a clear shot at Hellebuyck. It may not look like much, but this is an extremely difficult play to pull off, especially against an elite player like Scheifele.
Later on, Schmidt orchestrated another opportunity all by himself. With Scheifele once again pursuing, this time from behind, Schmidt flew up the halfboards through the neutral zone and surgically cut through the Winnipeg defense before firing a wrister on net from the high slot.
There’s a reason why Gerard Gallant and company have trusted Schmidt to play such huge minutes all season. Despite having surprisingly unfavorable possession numbers this postseason (48.77 CF% at 5v5), Schmidt continues to prove himself as an upper-echelon NHL defenseman in the most critical moments.
Set to become an unresticted free agent next summer, Schmidt will likely be waiting for a hefty pay raise. And he’s earned every penny.