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Jets tweak defense for Game 5 vs. Vegas

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As “stay the course” as Paul Maurice’s message seemed with the Winnipeg Jets facing elimination in Game 5, he’s making quite a few lineup changes against the Vegas Golden Knights.

In particular, their defense will look quite different. Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom are being replaced by Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov (pictured). On the offensive side, Joel Armia is returning to the lineup in place of Andrew Copp.

While this might feel like swapping lower-end parts (especially in Armia taking Copp’s spot), it’s worth noting that Morrow is likely to pair with Dustin Byfuglien on what is technically Winnipeg’s first duo, so these changes could make a difference. They also shine a spotlight on the gulf in talent between Winnipeg’s left and right sides on defense.

Winnipeg will ask the two returning defensemen to shake off some significant rust. Morrow, 25, hasn’t played since April 20 during the Minnesota Wild series. Kulikov, 27, has been sidelined and/or scratched since March 8.

No pressure.

At least Morrow’s already contributed a big goal during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Game 5 is about to air on NBC (at 3 p.m. ET). You can also stream the action live here.

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Golden Knights one win away from Stanley Cup Final

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The Vegas Golden Knights only need one win to reach the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Yes, really.

If that wasn’t enough, the Golden Knights also have three cracks at reaching the championship round if they need it. By holding on for a 3-2 win in Game 4, the Golden Knights continued to defy the odds in taking a 3-1 series lead against the mighty Winnipeg Jets.

(Looks through a thesaurus for more “unlikely” options …)

Game 4 felt a lot like Vegas’ Game 3 win, even as the Jets pushed that much harder to flip the script.

[PHT’s Three Stars for Game 4]

Much like in Game 3, the Golden Knights were able to take an early 1-0 lead thanks to their impressive first line. This time around, William Karlsson cashed in on assists from Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to get that opening goal on the power play during an opening period that inspired some officiating complaints and involved a bloodied Mark Scheifele.

The Jets managed to tie things up 1-1 on a power-play goal of their own (somewhat refreshingly by Patrik Laine, who played a great Game 4 overall), yet that relief would not last long, as Tomas Nosek restored Vegas’ lead once again. Just like in Game 3, the Golden Knights would take a slim lead into the third.

For a significant chunk of the third period, it seemed like Marc-Andre Fleury would drag the Golden Knights through another harrowing barrage of shots on goal by Winnipeg. It was difficult to shake that impression through the first half-or-so of the final frame until a Kane-on-Leighton-like goal from Tyler Myers made it 2-2.

That goal and the Jets’ overall pressure made it seem like we’d see overtime and/or a 2-2 tie in this series.

Instead, Reilly Smith finally added another goal to his assists-heavy playoff points total, and it was a big one. Smith capitalized on a bad break for Dustin Byfuglien to score a semi-breakaway goal that caught Connor Hellebuyck by surprise (and caught him off of his angle):

After that 3-2 tally, Fleury gave a wet willy to any Jets’ comeback attempt, continuing what’s shaping up to be a legendary playoff run by stopping 35 out of 37 shots on goal. This is the third straight game where Fleury has been forced to make at least 30 saves, and he’s won all three, allowing just five goals.

Overall, the Golden Knights succeeded in ways that have been paying off for them for much of the playoffs: sometimes-dominant play from their first line, flourishes of blazing speed, and undeniable opportunism.

But, yeah, it’s also mostly about Marc-Andre Fleury.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Golden Knights, Jets battle in Game 4

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Game 4: Winnipeg Jets at Vegas Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead series 2-1)
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Call: Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, Brian Boucher
• Stream here
Series preview

• Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets
Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights
These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury
Dustin Byfuglien keeps finding new ways to show his absurd strength (Video)
Jets’ Ehlers expected to be available for Game 4
Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights enjoying lucky Lamborghini

Cheveldayoff, McPhee, Yzerman are 2018 GM of the Year finalists
Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case

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Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case

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The Conference Finals have reached the halfway point as we continue to inch our way to a Stanley Cup Final that will be … well … let’s just say a very unexpected matchup no matter who ends up playing in it.

The four teams remaining would all provide a fascinating story in their own right and have had some incredible individual performances that have helped drive them to this point. So let’s focus on those once again and check back in with our Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings.

The top of the list still has Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but he is starting to get a bit of a challenge from one of his opponents in the Western Conference Final. As well as one of his teammates.

To the list!

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. He was in the top spot when looked at this more than a week and literally nothing has happened to change that. If anything, he has only strengthened his case as he now has the Golden Knights just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. No matter how many times you think that sentence it never stops being outrageous. Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, specifically his two acrobatic saves on Mark Scheifele in the third period, are his signature moment so far this postseason. What does it do to his legacy if he leads a first-year expansion team to a Stanley Cup Final appearance (or wins it?!) and wins the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way? Big things, obviously.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. He has already set the NHL record for most road goals in a single postseason with 11 of them. Overall, he has a league-best 14 goals … in only 15 games! Keep in mind that no player has scored more than 14 goals in a single playoff run since Sidney Crosby scored 15 for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09. Before him you have to go all the way back to Joe Sakic (18) in 1995-96. It seems like he is a guarantee for two points every single night.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. We had Ovechkin in the second spot in our last update and his drop isn’t at all a reflection on the way he has played — he has been consistently incredible. It is just that there are simply two players that, at this point, are just a little bit better. In all honestly pretty much any of the players in the top-three (Fleury, Scheifele, Ovechkin) could easily be in the top spot without much of an argument.

4. Jon Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas’ top line has been a nightmare for teams all year and Marchessault has been at the center of a lot of it. He is also proving that his 30-goal season a year ago with the Florida Panthers was not a fluke. He is now up to 17 points in 13 games this postseason and has at least two points in six of his past nine games. How did the Florida Panthers allow this to happen?

5. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. He had a three-game stretch at the start of the Boston series where he did not record a point. Outside of that he has found his way onto the scoresheet in every playoff game the Lightning have played and enters Game 4 on Thursday night riding a four-game point streak. He has been the engine driving the Lightning all year.

6. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Holtby has been an incredible playoff goalie throughout his entire career and is finally getting the goal support to make people notice it. Still one of the most mind-blowing Holtby stats is that he has been on the losing end of 14 games in his playoff career where he has allowed two goals or less. He has lost four games where he has allowed only one goal! He has consistently produced for the Capitals. He has deserved better. This year he is getting better and is a big reason why the team is so close to finally reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

7. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets. From strictly an entertainment perspective he might be at the top of the list. Point-per-game player on defense, playing 26 minutes a night, plays a devastatingly physical game, has players bouncing off of him like he is a brick wall when they try to hit him, and he can drag multiple players around the ice by himself like they are nothing.

8. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. He is playing 19 minutes per night (tops among all Lightning forwards) and has more even-strength points than any other player on the team. In just his second year in the NHL he has quickly become a key part of this core. Perhaps the lesson for the rest of the NHL here should be to not be afraid to take the undersized player if he proves he can put the puck in the net. The Lightning haven’t been afraid to do it and have built a team that has been in the NHL’s final four in three of the past four years.

MORE:
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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.

These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury

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We have to talk about Marc-Andre Fleury again because, well, he was making things happen for the Vegas Golden Knights yet again on Wednesday night.

And by making things happen, we are obviously talking about unbelievable saves, stealing games, and helping to be one of the lead authors of one of the most absurd and unbelievable stories in NHL history.

Fleury stopped 33 shots (including 15 out of 16 in the third period) to help the Golden Knights pick up a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, giving them a 2-1 lead in the series.

They are now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, if you can believe it.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Fleury, Marchessault lead Vegas to Game 3 win]

While Jonathan Marchessault scored two more goals, and James Neal had an eventful night coming back from an apparent head injury early in the game to score a goal, and a bunch of GMs continued to look bad for their expansion draft moves, this game was once again the Marc-Andre Fleury show.

Honestly, it was everything we have come to expect from what Fleury is as a goalie, as a player, and heck, even as a person.

There were incredible highlight reel saves, like the absurd sequence in the third period when he preserved Vegas’ one-goal lead by making back-to-back jaw-dropping saves on Mark Scheifele.

Fleury’s athleticism has been his calling card throughout his career, and it allows him (and sometimes even forces him) to make saves like those two.

There was also those moments where he showed that he basically just wants to have fun on the ice.

Like when he thanked his goal posts as only he can.

Or when he trolled Jets forward Blake Wheeler during that second period scrum — the one that Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien had to break up by himself — by flicking the back of his ear.

As if all of that was not enough, he also picked up an assist on Marchessault’s empty-net goal in the closing seconds to help put the game away.

Then after the game he showed what makes him a beloved member of whatever hockey community he is a part of when he met with the wife and children of late Humboldt Broncos coach and general manager Darcy Haugan, spending 20 minutes with them.

This night was the total Fleury experience in every way possible.

Overall, this entire season has been arguably the best hockey that he has ever played in his career. Given that he is already 11th on the NHL’s all-time wins list, already has his name on the Stanley Cup three times, and secured one of those championships with buzzer-beating save on one of the greatest players of all-time (Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom) that is not exactly a small accomplishment. If you want to quibble and point out that he was mostly a backup in the playoffs on the past two Stanley Cup winning teams he played for, you would not be entirely wrong. It is still worth pointing out the Pittsburgh Penguins team from a year ago probably loses in the first or second round without Fleury playing the way he did. So he was still a big part of the success.

But this season.

This season is something else entirely.

This is taking an expansion team — a roster of players that literally did not exist at this time a year ago — to a point where it is now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Six wins from potentially winning the whole thing. He is one of the driving forces behind this run.

It is not only a performance that is re-writing the narrative of his career as a postseason goalie, it might be the final push he needs to cement his status as a Hall of Fame goalie.

A lot of folks will pretty strongly argue that he has already done that in his career, but as I wrote back in February Fleury, to me, has always been a good, very durable goalie that has played for a long time with some incredible highs and some crushing lows.

A fine career, but is it one that is really worthy of the Hall of Fame? It could be — should be — up for some debate.

But what if he backstops a first-year expansion team to the Stanley Cup? Or, at the very least, simply to the Stanley Cup Final? If Vegas wins it — still a big if at this point, but we’re just playing with hypotheticals here — that would be his fourth. He would almost certainly win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He will be in the top-10 in wins and probably somewhere in the top-five when his career ends. No matter your opinion of him as a goalie, no matter what you remember about his postseason meltdowns in the middle part of his career, the people that vote on the Hall of Fame would never, ever, keep that sort of resume out.

Even if this season does not result in a Stanley Cup it still might play a huge role in changing the way his career is looked at.

Right now he is no longer “playoff Fleury,” the goalie that melts down at the most inopportune time and submarines a potential championship team far short of its expectations.

He is now “playoff Fleury,” the goalie that is helping to carry a team to heights no one thought possible at the start of the season.

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.