- The Vegas Golden Knights got off to a fast start in Game 3, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury helped it stand with a stellar 33-save performance against the Jets for a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final.
The show got started in Vegas before the pucked even dropped. Las Vegas is dubbed the Entertainment Capital of the World, and the Golden Knights’ organization did its best to energize the crowd with a theatrical display that included a fully-armored knight on skates who was equipped with a sword. Vegas fans responded accordingly, viciously waving their rally towels in the air.
The real Golden Knights hit the ice minutes later, armed with sticks instead of swords. It didn’t take long for them to keep the energy levels in the building higher than ever. Jonathan Marchessault, with help from Brayden McNabb’s heads-up lead pass down the ice, scored a nifty goal 35 seconds into the game to set the tone for the first period of play. Vegas outshot Winnipeg 10-3 in the frame, giving fans more and more to cheer about as the first 20 minutes wore on.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck kept the Jets in the game early on, and Winnipeg eventually tied it up on Mark Scheifele’s deft deflection early in the second. It was Scheifele’s 13th goal of the playoffs, but the momentum from it didn’t last long, and Hellebuyck’s brilliance didn’t sustain, either. The Jets’ netminder misplayed the puck behind the net, and James Neal cashed in 12 seconds after Scheifele’s tally to give Vegas the lead back. Alex Tuch added another a few minutes later, and the Golden Knights suddenly had a commanding 3-1 advantage.
"The response there is huge," Neal told NBC's Brian Boucher. "They got a lot of momentum off that goal and then we turn around. It’s always the worst when someone scores right after you do. It kinda sucked the life out of them and gave us energy."
Scheifele, though, wasn’t finished. He continued Marchessault’s trend of early goals by potting another just 18 seconds into the third. The Jets came out with a flurry, and Scheifele was there to put the finishing touches on it. Jets captain Blake Wheeler fired the puck behind Marc-Andre Fleury, where Kyle Connor collected it. Connor wrapped around to Fleury’s left and slid a pass over to Scheifele, who buried his second of the game and league-leading 14th of the playoffs into a relatively open net. Scheifele’s goal also set a record for most road goals scored (11) during a single postseason. Those tallies have come on just 17 shots, for a sky-high shooting percentage of 65.
The vivacity from the pregame show and Vegas’s quick start dissipated to a degree as the fans sat nervously through what was now a one-goal game. The Jets sensed vulnerability as well. They controlled the game for the entirety of the third period, outshooting Vegas 16-8 during the final 20 minutes. Fleury, who has made his case for the Conn Smythe Trophy throughout this year’s postseason, rose to the challenge.
Midway through the period, Scheifele had two chances at a hat trick but more importantly, two chances at a tie game. Both were emphatically denied by Fleury, who may have made the save of the playoffs on Scheifele’s second attempt of the sequence.
"I was a little late on the pass, I was focused on the shooter," Fleury told Boucher. "I just got a toe on it but it bounced right back in the slot. I was late coming there, too, so I tried to get as much body as I could in front of it and get a piece of it."
The Jets’ charged on, making the rink look more tilted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Fleury continued to stand on his head, and Marchessault put an exclamation point on the win with an empty-netter just before the final buzzer.
"Flower was unbelievable for us," Neal said to Boucher. "He’s so good, he’s been calm and cool every game."
As time expired, the two teams engaged in a scuffle that lasted much longer than most postseason altercations—setting up what will be a riveting Game 4 on Friday.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT
Marc-Andre Fleury did what he does best in the playoffs: shut the door on his opposition’s hopes and dreams. These two saves on Mark Schiefele, the postseason's leading goal scorer, were absolutely dynamite.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury, VGK — He had 33 saves and Vegas needed every one of them. Without Fleury, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.
2. James Neal, VGK — Neal temporarily left the game after taking a hit to the head. He came back to break a 1-1 tie with his second-period goal, and he added an assist a couple of minutes later.
3. Mark Scheifele, WPG — Though his team didn’t win and his counterpart Jonathan Marchessault scored two goals as well, Scheifele was the main reason the Jets even had a chance of winning Game 3. His line threatened to score on more shifts than not.
With Tampa Bay and Washington, the closest thing we've had to a tight contest was in Game 2—and even that ended in a 6-2 Capitals victory. Neither team has won at home in the series. If the Capitals change that, then they’ll be one win away from the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998. A Tampa Bay win in Thursday's Game 4 reclaims home-ice advantage for the Lightning and puts Jon Cooper in the driver’s seat to get back to the Final, where his team lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015.
In the two games that Washington has won in the series, Alex Ovechkin scored two points apiece. In the Game 3 loss, Ovechkin was held scoreless. With 19 points in the postseason, the Caps’ captain has been the team’s motor. His goose egg in Game 3 wasn’t for a lack of trying—he recorded nine shots during his 25:36 of ice time. He, along with many of his teammates, simply couldn’t crack Andrei Vasilevsky. Tampa Bay needs much of the same to occur in Game 4 to send the series home knotted at two games apiece.