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Winnipeg Jets top Vegas Golden Knights 5-1 in first-round series opener

LAS VEGAS — The Winnipeg Jets struggled after poor starts in their previous trips to Las Vegas during the regular season.

They made sure there wasn’t a repeat of that now that the playoffs have arrived.

With Morgan Barron providing some inspiration by returning after suffering a nasty gash to the face, the Jets set the early tone in the first-round series on Tuesday with a 5-1 victory over the Golden Knights.

“Tonight was clearly the best game we’ve played against them for the full 60 minutes,” said Jets coach Rick Bowness. “Now they’re a great hockey club over there and they’re going to get momentum. So I found tonight we did a good job of when we bent a little bit, we didn’t break.

“Just as important was that the next line went out and stopped their momentum.”

Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois silenced the vocal sellout crowd at T-Mobile Arena with goals just over a minute apart early in the second period.

Blake Wheeler added another goal early in the third and Adam Lowry scored twice late in regulation to ice the win. William Karlsson tallied for the Golden Knights.

“You need an intensity level that was greater than the one we had,” said Vegas head coach Bruce Cassidy. 

Connor Hellebuyck made 16 saves for the Jets, who were winless in three previous meetings against Vegas this season. His former understudy, Laurent Brossoit, had 26 stops for the Golden Knights.

Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is scheduled for Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Forward Mark Stone returned to the Golden Knights lineup after missing four months as he recovered from back surgery. 

Kevin Stenlund suited up for Winnipeg after suffering a lower-body injury last week. Fellow forward Nikolaj Ehlers, a game-time decision with an upper-body injury, sat out.

The Golden Knights earned the Pacific Division title and No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a 111-point regular season, but it was the eighth-seeded Jets who came out gunning in the opening period.

Winnipeg had the better chances in the early going but couldn’t quite solve Brossoit. 

The Jets nearly scored midway through the first period after a wild scrum in front of the Vegas net. As many as eight players were down in the crease area but the puck didn’t cross the line. 

Barron was cut near the eyebrow by a skate blade during the scramble and left the ice for repairs. He later returned with a full cage attached to his helmet after receiving 75-plus stitches.

“They did a great job stitching me up and, obviously, it missed my eye,” he said. “I was glad it didn’t get me in a real bad spot.”

Lowry said no one realized how bad the cut was when he left the ice, adding the players were pleased to see him back on the bench in the second period.

“It looked like he got attacked by a shark, to be honest,” he said. “It’s a scary thing.”

Bowness said he went in to check on Barron in the first intermission.

“I think Morgan’s presence coming back from that — because they all realized how bad it was — that it gave everyone a big boost,” he said. 

Considered one of the loudest rinks in the NHL, the crowd of 18,006 was in full voice until Connor scored on a one-timer from the high slot at 1:24. 

Dubois made it 2-0 when his wrist shot beat Brossoit on the blocker side at 2:26.

“Just like that, you’re up 2-0 and they’re chasing the game now,” Dubois said.

Vegas got on the board at 15:49. Ivan Barbashev feathered a pass to a cutting Karlsson, who snapped a shot in the top corner. 

Wheeler restored Winnipeg’s two-goal lead at 3:53 of the third period when he flipped a backhand past a screened Brossoit.

The Jets took a bench minor for too many men with 5:15 left in regulation but Vegas never threatened on the power play. Lowry’s empty-netter was scored with 81 seconds remaining and he banged in another goal with 18.3 seconds left.

Winnipeg was one of the top clubs in the conference over the first few months of the season, endured a midseason valley and closed the campaign on a 7-4-0 run to take the second wild-card berth.

The Jets used a smart, steady approach for their opening road game. Winnipeg made few mistakes and kept the Golden Knights primarily confined to the wings.

“Every game moving forward gets tougher,” Bowness said. “And we know the next game in here is going to be a lot tougher here for us.”

Vegas and Winnipeg previously met in the 2018 conference final. The Golden Knights advanced and went on to drop the Stanley Cup final to the Washington Capitals.

The Jets were 20-20-1 on the road during the regular season while the Golden Knights were 25-15-1 at home.

Winnipeg will host Game 3 on Saturday afternoon and Game 4 on Monday night at Canada Life Centre. If necessary, the series will return to Nevada for Game 5 on April 27.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2023.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press