WINNIPEG -- The feeling was empty when the whiteout ended.
"It's hard to believe it's over, really," Winnipeg Jets forward Mathieu Perreault said after a 2-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final at Bell MTS Place on Sunday, ending the best-of-7 series. "We tried so hard too. We left it all out there. It's so disappointing when you put so much effort into it but the result is not there. It's hard to swallow."
The Jets had not lost three games in a row in regulation (their worst stretch was 0-2-1 twice) during their 114-point regular season, but they dropped four straight after winning Game 1 of this series.
[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Golden Knights series coverage]
"It's been over for 10 minutes; pretty empty, emotionless," captain Blake Wheeler said.
Wheeler, who is leading the NHL with 18 assists in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, declined to go the "what-if" route. Instead he saluted Vegas for advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
"It was their time," Wheeler said. "They're just playing really well and you have to give them all the credit. Typically in a seven-game series, the better team wins. Coming into it, I thought we had the best team. I felt that way and obviously I'm a little bit biased, standing in this room feeling that we had a great opportunity.
"And that team just ... it was their time. They made it really tough for us. We had to work for everything we got and even when we broke them down, we just couldn't seem to ever gain the type of momentum we needed to get this thing on our terms."
The Jets scored 10 goals in the five games against Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. They scored 43 in 12 games over the first two rounds.
Video: VGK@WPG, Gm5: Maurice on playoff run, Game 5 loss
Winnipeg actually won the special-teams battle in the conference final, 4-for-17 on the power play to Vegas' 2-for-11, but it was a wash over the final three games of the series with one power-play goal each.
Despite being an expansion team, the Golden Knights had more playoff experience (748 man-games heading into Game 5 to the Jets' 569). Fleury's .938 save percentage in the series also made a huge difference.
"They had the best goalie in the League right now," said Jets center Mark Scheifele, who scored 14 goals in the playoffs, which leads the League. "He stood on his head. He made a lot of big saves. Their D played solid, played solid in their D zone. And I obviously wish it was different."
Wheeler said, "Their goaltender was extraordinary. There were numerous times the puck was in spots where it looked like it was in the net or going in the net. And he's playing lights out right now."
The Jets fell behind 5:11 into the Game 5 on a goal by Alex Tuch, then tied it on a slap shot by Josh Morrissey at 17:14.
Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves' deflection at 13:21 of the second period proved to be the winning goal.
The Jets pressed the issue but never had a sharp enough play to solve Fleury for the rest of the game. That declining sharpness exposed a toll the playoffs took.
"They did not give any easy offense," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "We had to grind and work and work for the chances that we did get. There's a cost to that. And it stacked up, and coming off of what we did to get here. Clean things, on the tape, pucks off the tape a little quicker, that became difficult for us. The right thing to do is to make sure you give the other team credit. They did a good job with that.
"But we were not quite as ... the will was there, the compete was there, maybe more this series than either of the other two series. I don't think we ran out of gas at all. We lost some sharpness. Our hands felt it. Your brain goes a little slower, it gets off your stick a little quicker, your reads are a little slower. But the will was still there."
Video: VGK@WPG, Gm5: Morrissey nets slapper off the draw
Winnipeg's journey to the conference final included defeating the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in seven games in the second round. That result had the Jets feeling confident, and it's likely that momentum helped them win Game 1 against the Golden Knights.
"We won two series and beat the No. 1 team in the League and the sky's the limit at this point," Perreault said. "But you have to win two more series. That's why they say it's the hardest trophy to win in sport."
The cost to that series against the Predators may have been more than the Jets thought.
"Maybe a little bit," Perreault said. "In Game 7 (against Nashville), so much emotion into that. We started right away and took the first game and were thinking, 'We're going to do it. Let's do this.' Then you go four games without finding a way.
"We tied games up but couldn't play with that. And then [Fleury] stopped everything in the other end. What are you going to do?"
If there were any regrets in the Jets locker room on Sunday, they were unspoken.
"We all can hold our heads high and say we gave it our all, and it just wasn't meant to be," center Paul Stastny said. "It's frustrating. You can say you think you're the better team, but it doesn't matter. It just shows you how hard it is."
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