It takes two to tango, and on Monday night the Vegas Golden Knights danced their way to proving that there are indeed two teams in the NHL’s Western Conference Finals.
It just wasn’t in the cards Monday night in Winnipeg. And it wasn’t as though the Jets were just dealt a bad hand, as the home team maintained control of the game’s pace in the early stages. But after falling behind, Winnipeg just wasn’t able to fully put together a successful bounce back effort in the later stages of the game, ultimately falling 3-1 to Vegas.
It’s tough enough just to win a playoff game on any given night. But when you’re battling bad bounces, missed calls and difficult competition, the frustration certainly does add up quickly.
Following a game one that saw the Winnipeg Jets jump out to early lead and hold off for a dominant home ice victory, the Vegas Golden Knights and Jets renewed acquaintances Monday evening at Bell MTS Place. Although beginning in a similar fashion with Don Cherry and Ron McLean pumping up those attending the street party, game two was anything but similar to Saturday’s thrashing.
Once again, the Jets came out of the gate flying high, putting together a handful of quality scoring chances just minutes into the contest. 12 goal man, Mark Scheifele had an early shot trickle through Marc-Andre Fleury’s legs, just before Nik Ehlers rang a wrister squarely off the iron. Other than a few scares in the early going, Fleury seemed to be able to tune out the boisterous Bell MTS Place crowd, stopping an onslaught of shots, helping his mates out with 11 stops in the first period.
After allowing just three goals in his team’s first five games, Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury had since allowed three-plus goals in five of his last six outings. The Winnipeg fans certainly got on Fleury’s nerves in the early going both Saturday and Monday, chanting his name rather relentlessly, as well as begging to get a chance at backup netminder Malcolm Subban – younger brother of local Winnipeg torment Pernell Karl.
Although putting up a shaky performance in game one, heading into game number two, Fleury led both starting goaltenders in terms of goals against average (1.74 – 2.23) and save percentage (.943 – .926). Connor Hellebuyck has however, played two more games than Fleury – a statistic certainly contributing to his GAA and SP.
Winnipeg certainly dictated the flow of the game in the early going, but following back-to-back sloppy shifts in the Jets’ defensive zone, the Golden Knights capitalized – not just once, but two times.
Vegas opened the scoring on their tenth shot of the game – Tatar’s first goal of the playoffs – and added to their lead with Marchessault’s fifth of the postseason just a few minutes later. Both goals came off of brutal neutral zone/defensive zone turnovers.
Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck did not look particularly sharp on either Golden Knights’ marker. Heading into Monday’s game, the Jets were 1-3 in the postseason when giving up the first goal of the game, while Vegas was 6-1 when scoring first in the playoffs. Winnipeg’s one come-from-behind victory occurred at home after falling behind 3-0 against the Nashville Predators midway through the second round.
A rather uneventful second period saw both Winnipeg and Vegas each put up eight shots – none of which were dangerous enough to break the plane of either goal line. The Winnipeg fans grew noticeably angered with each uncalled infraction, as the Golden Knights’ chippy style of play seemed to go unnoticed by referees Gord Dwyer and Chris Rooney. After a handful of trips, holds, hooks and high hits, Vegas’ Brayden McNabb was finally handed a two minute minor with just two seconds remaining in the second period.
With Vegas defenceman Luca Sbisa in the penalty box for tripping midway through the third period, Kyle Connor picked up a Nik Ehlers setup pass, before walking to the bottom of the circle and putting a soft wrist shot through Fleury – waking up the Winnipeg Whiteout in the process. Although the home crowd hit 114 decibels on the Connor strike, it didn’t take long for the Golden Knights to weather the storm.
On a sweet setup from William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, Marchessault collected his second goal of the game on a powerful line rush up the ice. That insurance marker by Marchessault – originally an undrafted free agent signing by the Columbus Blue Jackets – pulled the home crowd out of the game once and for all, sealing the deal for Vegas, 3-1.
The Jets finished the game outshooting the Golden Knights 31-28, but Fleury was the difference maker, stopping 30 of those shots. Hellebuyck did not put forth his best showing, managing to stop just 25 of 28 shots against. Fleury’s win was the 71st postseason victory of his NHL career, tying him with Jacques Plante for ninth place on the NHL’s all-time playoff win leaderboard.
Prior to puck drop Monday, the Winnipeg Jets announced that they had called up 13 players from their American Hockey League affiliate, Manitoba Moose. A group highlighted by all-star rookies Mason Appleton and Sami Niku will provide some depth and injury relief to a team right in the middle of a deep playoff run. The privilege of hanging around the Stanley Cup Playoffs will certainly give the recent call ups some exciting experience.
The Western Conference Finals will now shift to Vegas, where the Golden Knights will look to build upon Monday’s performance in games three and four, set for 8:20 P.M. and 9:20 P.M. central time Wednesday and Friday, respectively.
The Jets will fly out to Nevada Tuesday morning in preparation for game three. Once again, games three and four will be on the road, so Winnipeg Whiteout viewing parties will occur at Bell MTS Place for $10 for local fans wanting an up-close look at the action. Both Sportsnet and CBC will have the game televised, with a pre-game show starting a half hour before puck drop.
By Carter Brooks
Photos by Rusty Barton and James Carey Lauder