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Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Golden Knights replace Tatar with Perron; Ehlers back for Jets

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Both the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets are getting some significant names back into their lineups for Game 4 of the 2018 Western Conference Final.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE; Game 4 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET]

The most significant addition is Nikolaj Ehlers, as expected. Interestingly, Jets head coach Paul Maurice decided to scratch Joel Armia instead of Jack Roslovic to make room for Ehlers. The Jets’ second line should be that much deadlier with Ehlers back alongside Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine; maybe this will help to solve some of their supporting cast riddles?

It’s also interesting – yet the Jets hope irrelevant – that Michael Hutchinson is dressing as Connor Hellebuyck‘s backup instead of Steve Mason.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights get one of their leading regular-season scorers back in David Perron. While Ehlers seemingly missed Game 3 with an illness, Perron was sidelined for Games 2 and 3.

Gerard Gallant must really like what he’s seeing from his team’s pluggers, because the return of Perron apparently means that Tomas Tatar loses this game of musical chairs. Tatar scored a big goal in Game 2, yet he only logged a little more than 10 minutes in these past two contests, so he may still reside in Gallant’s doghouse.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nikolaj Ehlers will not play for Jets in Game 3

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Some big lineup news for the Winnipeg Jets heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday night as they will be without forward Nikolaj Ehlers.

Ehlers did not take part in warmups while rookie forward Jack Roslovic will draw into the lineup.

Brandon Tanev skated in Ehlers’ place on the second line next to Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine.

The 21-year-old Ehlers is one of the Jets’ core players and is coming off another strong regular season performance that saw him score 29 goals in 82 games. That success has not continued in the playoffs, however, as he has yet to score a goal in 13 postseason games. This will be the second game he has missed this postseason. According to Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun it is not a healthy scratch and Ehlers is dealing with some sort of undisclosed ailment.

Tanev, meanwhile, has been surprisingly productive in the playoffs and enters Game 3 with four goals and two points. In 61 regular season games he had just eight goals and 10 assists.

On the Vegas side, the Golden Knights will once again be without David Perron who will miss his second consecutive game. Tomas Tatar, fresh off of his strong Game 2 performance that saw him score his first goal of the playoffs, will once again play in his spot. Backup goalie Malcolm Subban was also not on the ice for warmups and will be replaced by Maxime Legace.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Vegas’ Tomas Tatar makes most of opportunity in Game 2

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When the NHL trade deadline rolled around the Vegas Golden Knights were in the surprising — or maybe you prefer shocking — position of being buyers. They were at the top of the Western Conference, they were clearly emerging as contenders, and they were in the market for some help. There were rumors of a big splash involving Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, but when that never materialized they ended up sending three draft picks to the Detroit Red Wings for forward Tomas Tatar.

Down the stretch run of the regular season and through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the trade had produced a rather underwhelming return with Tatar recording just six points in his first 24 games with the team and finding himself as a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs. He played very limited minutes when he was in the lineup.

He was given another chance to make an impact of Game 2 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night and did just that in the Golden Knights’ 3-1 win to help them even their series with the Winnipeg Jets at one game apiece.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Fleury, Golden Knights rebound in Game 2]

Was he Vegas’ best player on Monday? No, he was not. That honor would have to go to either goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for holding off the Jets’ offense and making several big saves, or perhaps Jonathan Marchessault for scoring two more goals to continue his incredible season.

But that does not mean that Tatar did not play a big role in the win.

He scored his first goal of the playoffs late in the first period when he was able to finish off a wonderful individual effort around the net to finally jam the puck in behind Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

That gave the Golden Knights the game’s first goal and helped them slow down what had been an incredibly fast start by the Jets where they were initially carrying the play.

Vegas’ decision to trade for Tatar was seen as a bit of a risk because even with its first-year success it was still an expansion team that is building from the ground up and is going to need as many assets as it can get to keep accumulating talent. General manager George McPhee did a masterful job in the expansion draft process utilizing trades and deals to acquire as many future assets as he could, which probably made it easier to part with so many of them. He was able to turn three of them, including their own 2018 first-round pick into Tatar.

At this point that is going to be either the 28th, 29th, 30th or 31st pick in this year’s draft, a second-rounder next year (a pick that previously belonged to the New York Islanders and was acquired, along with the Islanders’ 2017 first-round pick, as one of those expansion draft deals), and a third-round pick three years from now. Not exactly a ton of risk involved there, especially after Vegas had three first-round picks in 2017.

Even though Tatar had not yet made much of an impact until Game 2 on Monday night it was still a gamble worth taking for Vegas. Not only has he been a 20-goal scorer in each of the past four seasons (and he scored 19 in only 73 games the year before that run started), he is still signed for another three years after this one. The latter point is important because Vegas could potentially lose a couple of unrestricted free agent forwards this summer, including James Neal and David Perron. Both players have been vital cogs in Vegas’ machine this season and if they move on the Golden Knights going to need to find some top-six wingers to replace them. Tatar could end up being one of them. In that sense it is somewhat fitting that Tatar only got back into the lineup on Monday night because Perron could not go for Vegas.

He only ended up playing 10 minutes again on Monday, but he made the most of them by scoring a goal, attempted four shots (putting two on net), while the Golden Knights attempted 74 percent of the total shot attempts (11 for, only four against) with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play, the best mark of any Vegas player.

It was just an all-around solid game.

His track record in the NHL indicates he has far more to offer than what he has showed so far in his brief time with the Golden Knights. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time for a player to get completely settled with a new team.

On Monday he delivered a little bit of what Vegas was hoping when it acquired him at just the right time.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tomas Tatar replaces David Perron in Golden Knights lineup for Game 2

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After dropping Game 1 of the Western Conference Final the Vegas Golden Knights will have a slightly different look to their lineup in Game 2 on Monday night.

Tomas Tatar and Tomas Nosek will draw into the lineup in place of David Perron and Oscar Lindberg.

The Tatar for Perron swap here is the big one, and could be the result of a collision with teammate James Neal in the Game 1 loss.

Perron had a great regular season for the Golden Knights, scoring 16 goals to go with 50 assists in 70 regular season games. He has yet to score a goal in the playoffs, but does has seven assists in nine games.

The Golden Knights acquired Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings at the trade deadline and paid a heavy price in terms of draft picks (a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019, and a third-round pick in 2021), but he has yet to fit in the way the Golden Knights had hoped. He has only played in four playoff games and since coming over in the trade has four goals and two assists in 24 games.

He has scored at least 20 goals in each of the past four seasons and is in the first year of a four-year contract that will pay him $5.3 million per season for another three years.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.