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Conference Final

Golden Knights move closer to Cup Final, but focused on next game

Won't look past Jets after taking 3-1 lead in Western Conference Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- The story of the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights comes down to one thing above all else: seizing the opportunity. From the executives to the coaches to the players, they were let go elsewhere, got another chance here and jelled into the greatest expansion team of all time.

Now they have another opportunity, the ultimate opportunity.

They can win the Stanley Cup.

 

[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

It's up to them to seize it. It's right there for them now.

After their 3-2 victory against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 4 at T-Mobile Arena on Friday, they have a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Final.

Teams with a 3-1 lead in best-of-7 series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have a series record of 278-28, winning 90.8 percent of the time. Teams with a 3-1 lead in the conference finals or semifinals since 1974-75 have a series record of 41-1, winning 97.6 percent of the time.

So the numbers say the Golden Knights should win this series. And if they can defeat the Jets, the No. 2 team in the NHL in the regular season, they can win it all. They were the No. 5 team in the NHL in the regular season and are 11-3 in the playoffs, including 6-1 at home. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals, who are tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Final, were Nos. 3 and 6, respectively, in the NHL in the regular season.

Among the reasons we can think this way is that the Golden Knights aren't thinking this way. They aren't giddy newbies walking around with a ring-sizer as they head to Winnipeg for Game 5 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Video: WPG@VGK, Gm4: Smith wires wrister in for lead

Defenseman Nate Schmidt, their most colorful, quotable player, was speechless at first when asked if he could describe this opportunity. He sighed. He paused.

"Not really," he said. "Not really. I mean, it's uh …"

Another pause. Another sigh.

"It's still another game to win in order to move on," he said. "It's the hardest one to win."

He was pressed. Isn't this what you dream about as a player?

"You're saying this is what we train for in July and August and training camp, 82 games?" he said, smiling.

Yeah. For sure. You spend your entire career working toward the Cup, and now you're one win from the Final.

"Yep," he said, still smiling.

Another pause. Not going to bite?

"Honestly, what's been awesome about our group is we've had much fun in the moment," Schmidt said, still smiling. "I don't want to fast-forward anything. I don't want to look ahead. I want to be right here where we are right now and enjoy this for about five minutes and then get ourselves ready to go into Winnipeg."

Video: WPG@VGK, Gm4: Fleury, Smith talk Game 4 victory

That's essentially what Schmidt has said all season. 

The Golden Knights didn't have low expectations to start. They had no expectations. Coach Gerard Gallant told them to have fun and work hard, and they would see where it took them. Even as it became clear they would make the playoffs, he refused to acknowledge it. Why would they put pressure on themselves?

Why start now? 

"It's awesome," forward James Neal said. "But I think at the same time you've just got to stay in the moment. Everyone's going to say you're one win away, of course, but that's the hardest win. … Can't take the foot off the gas."

The belief has grown throughout the season and the playoffs, however, and it had to grow again Friday. 

Video: WPG@VGK, Gm4: Gallant on what impressed him in Game 4

Forward Tomas Nosek took an offensive-zone penalty for tripping in the second period, and Jets forward Patrik Laine tied the game 1-1 at 9:29 on the ensuing power play. But as he has done all season, Gallant didn't bury a player for a mistake, not even a fourth-liner. He put Nosek right back on the ice. Nosek responded by scoring 43 seconds after Laine did.

The Golden Knights had the lead again, this time 2-1, and T-Mobile Arena rocked again. It was the third time in three straight wins that they had scored less than a minute and a half after the Jets had. These guys don't get discouraged, don't give up, don't stop.

The Jets dominated in the third, taking 12 of the first 15 shots, and tying the game 2-2 on a goal by defenseman Tyler Myers at 5:34. But then Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien fanned on a shot at the right point, and Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith had an opportunity.

Sure enough, he seized it.

Video: WPG@VGK, Gm4: Marchessault feeds Karlsson for PPG

Smith raced up the left wing ahead of forward Brandon Tanev and snapped a shot past goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, bar down, at 13:02. With the 3-2 lead, the Golden Knights were relentless. They closed out the game. Now they have to close out the series.

"We've been a team that don't get satisfied," forward Jonathan Marchessault said. "We take a lot of pride in just playing the right way. Closing a series is definitely the hardest thing, and we need to be ready. And I think we will be."

***

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