Golden Knights, Jets open conference final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The Winnipeg Jets hope to keep feeling the good vibrations of their predecessors from 40 years ago.

Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson — the Hot Line — and 12 other members of the 1977-78 WHA Jets are in town for a reunion and they’re cheering like crazy for the new incarnation of the team.

They were glued to the bar television watching the 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Nashville Predators and they’re all going to be at Bell MTS Place when the Jets open their Western Conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night.

Jets coach Paul Maurice was justifiably happy after knocking out the Presidents Trophy winners with three victories in enemy territory.

“The telling stat for me in this series is we played four games in (Nashville) and never lost in regulation. Against the best team in the league,” he told The Winnipeg Sun. “To play well in here as consistently as we did, it’s impressive.”

Not only that, but the Jets chased the favorite for the Vezina Trophy, Pekke Rinne, three times in the series, including in the first period on Thursday after taking a quick 2-0 lead.

“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” a despondent Rinne told a scrum at his locker stall. “It’s tough to understand. I can’t point to anything. I felt good and I was healthy. This was the biggest moment of the season and to let your teammates down is a terrible feeling.”

The Golden Knights, who won the season series against the Jets this year with two wins in three games, have had their skates up for the better part of a week after eliminating the San Jose Sharks in six games. Not even in existence a year ago, they are already the most successful first-year franchise in the history of professional sports.

Just how far they go will depend largely on the pads of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh. He said he relishes the fact that his team has exceeded the expectations of, well, everybody.

“It was maybe a little bit of a shock, but I’m proud of our team, our organization, the way they did things here,” he told a media scrum. “I’m proud to be where we are right now.”

Coach Gerard Gallant told a media conference there’s no doubt his troops deserve to be where they are.

“We’re a good team, we play hard and we played well all season long,” he said. “The two teams we played were very good hockey teams and we were very evenly matched with those teams.”

The ’78 Jets not only steamrolled through their season, winning the AVCO Cup in four straight games over Gordie Howe and the New England Whalers, they also became the first North American team to defeat the mighty Soviet national team, without a doubt the strongest team in the world at the time, when they won 5-3 on Jan. 5, 1978, at Winnipeg Arena.

Game 2 will be played Monday night.