and then relied on solid goaltender to shut the game down – taking the third matchup of the Western Conference Finals 4-2 from their Canadian counterpart in the process.
It went from Whiteout to Knightout as game three began with a classically flashy five-minute Arthurian display, in which a medieval-themed golden knight emerged from an in-arena castle and defeated a fighter jet, in advance of a colourful starting lineup display. That premonition of sorts proved to set the tone for the hometown boys, as the NHL’s newest franchise came flying out of the gate.
Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault wasted little time grabbing the lead on Wednesday, as the Golden Knights jumped ahead 1-0 just 35 seconds into game three. On a failed Mark Scheifele zone entry, Marchessault beat out a flat-footed Jacob Trouba, collected a loose puck in the neutral zone, before deking out Connor Hellebuyck and putting the puck past the rather stunned Winnipeg netminder.
Although both teams had multiple scoring chances – both at even strength and on the man advantage – in the opening frame, Vegas finished the first period with a 10-3 lead in the shots department, and more importantly, a one-goal advantage.
It took the Jets 25 minutes to score their first goal of the game. 5:28 into the middle frame Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler calmly tossed a loose puck towards the front of the Vegas goal from the goal line on a seemingly innocent play.
Luckily for Wheeler, linemate Mark Scheifele was directly between his shot and Marc-Andre Fleury. The red-hot Scheifele perfectly redirected the puck past the Vegas netminder for his 13th of the postseason, knotting up the game at ones.
The game remained tied for a grand total of 12 seconds, as the Golden Knights once again wasted little time jumping out to another lead. Following a miss-play by Hellebuyck behind the Jets’ net, Erik Haula quickly provided a centering pass to a wide-open James Neal, who calmly tucked it into the open cage, bringing the hometown fans at T-Mobile Arena to their collective feet, as their Knights regained the lead just seconds after being scored upon.
Vegas added to their lead as James Neal took advantage of a worn out Dustin Byfuglien-Toby Enstrom defence pairing and outskated the blueliners on an off-wing zone entry. Taking the puck behind the Winnipeg net, Neal found Alex Tuch who pumped his fifth goal of the playoffs past Hellebuyck, handing Vegas a two-goal cushion.
Although sticking to their two-goal advantage, the Golden Knights maintained their slim 22-19 lead in the shot department after 40 minutes.
Learning from the model the Golden Knights had established in the early going, it was Winnipeg who struck quickly in the third period. In taking just 18 seconds to pot his 14th goal of the postseason, Mark Scheifele collected a nifty backdoor pass from linemate Kyle Connor before banking it past a tangled up Marc-Andre Fleury. The goal was Scheifele’s 11th road goal – an NHL record.
Before those gathered at the Winnipeg Jets’ viewing party at Bell MTS Place even had a chance to sit down following the second intermission, the Winnipeg faithful were back on their feet cheering loudly as their team pulled within one goal of the home club. Wheeler picked up his second assist of the game as it was his missed shot attempt that led directly to Connor’s centering pass.
Unfortunately for Winnipeg, Scheifele’s 14th goal was the last Jets’ marker to occur Wednesday. Although putting together 32 shots in the final two periods – including a 16-8 shellacking in the third period – the Jets were just unable to beat Fleury in a third period dominated by Winnipeg.
Scheifele easily had the two best chances to tie the game up for the visitors, as Fluery robbed the hottest playoff shooter on a perfectly released cross-ice one-time opportunity, before diving back across the crease and making a tremendous desperation style save once again on the 14-goal man.
Tyler Myers saw Fluery turn aside a breakaway chance midway through the frame, before Byfuglien lost a tremendous scoring opportunity on a great poke check by the veteran netminder just a few moments later.
The 33-year-old Fleury actually finished the night stopping 33 of Winnipeg’s 35 shots, while maintaining his career-best 1.68 goals against average en route to his 10th victory of the 2018 postseason.
Marchessault sealed the deal for Vegas with an empty net strike with just 2.7 seconds remaining in the game, collecting his 17th point of the playoffs in the process. Those 17 points now place the 27-year-old just one point behind the all-time leader in point production by a single player in his team’s inaugural playoff run (Jude Drouin 1975) – a record Marchessault will clearly overtake.
Hellebuyck made some timely third period saves to prolong his team’s comeback effort, but ultimately did not do enough to prevent Vegas’ all encompassing attack. The Golden Knights’ second goal of the game will certainly be one that the 24-year-old will want back. Hellebuyck ended the game with 26 saves.
Vegas improved its record to an electrifying 5-1 at home in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Wednesday, while Winnipeg dropped its second game in a row for the first time this postseason. Thursday morning will mark the first time in which the players on the Winnipeg Jets will wake up finding themselves trailing in a playoff series since spring of 2015.
Historically, when a best-of-seven series is tied at one game apiece, the team that wins the third game goes on to win the series nearly 70 percent of the time.
After sitting in the press box for the better part of two months, winger Jack Roslovic drew back into Winnipeg’s lineup for game three, as the speedy Nikolaj Ehlers missed his second game of the playoffs with an undisclosed injury. Ehlers’ speed was certainly missed, but Roslovic was able to fill in nicely for his fellow teammate, collecting a shot and two hits in 11:30 of ice time.
Vegas was also missing one of their second line wingers, as veteran David Perron once again did not dress, as he was battling an injury of his own.
Game four of the Western Conference Finals will also go from Vegas on Friday, as the Jets will look to rebound from back-to-back losses to their fellow conference finalists. Puck drop is set for 7:20 P.M. central time, and the game can be viewed live on CBC and Sportsnet.
By Carter Brooks
Photos by Rusty Barton and James Carey Lauder