WINNIPEG – One thing Jonathan Marchessault has never done in hockey is run from the battle.
That he is here at all now in the National Hockey League, when there were so many opportunities for Marchessault to retreat and find less resistance and easier money elsewhere, is evidence of his determination and self-belief.
That he has been one of the best players in these Stanley Cup playoffs, and on Monday the best player on the ice as the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1, is proof that his confidence was well-founded and that a lot of people were wrong about him along the way.
When his team lost 4-2 Saturday in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Marchessault promised: "Next game, no excuses. Everybody needs to come and be ready to play our best game of the playoffs. We’re going to show what kind of team we are."
On Monday, Vegas did. So did Marchessault, who scored twice and had eight shots on goal as the Knights punched back against the Jets to even the series as it shifts to Las Vegas for Game 3 on Wednesday.
It was a monster game from the five-foot-nine offensive dynamo, the kind of game we should expect from a driven player who has scored everywhere he has been yet only now, after six years in professional hockey, has found in the Knights a team that believes in him as much as he always believed in himself.
"I think that’s the story of our club: We were all part of… not being part of the centre of every hockey club we were on, I think," Marchessault said of the expansion Knights. "Everybody sees the opportunity here. That’s what makes our success. We’re just a bunch of hockey players that wanted to find a home, and we did."
The undrafted, undersized forward from Cap-Rouge, Que., finally got a full season in the NHL last year at age 26 and produced 30 goals for the Florida Panthers, his third organization. And yet the Panthers still exposed him in the expansion draft last June and let him walk to the Knights.
He had 75 points in 77 games for Vegas and with William Karlsson and Reilly Smith formed one of the best lines in hockey. They have powered the Knights’ attack since October and through two games of the Conference final, despite all the hype about the Jets’ firepower, have been easily the best line in the series.
In 12 playoff games, they’ve combined for 12 goals and 41 points.
"Biggest stage of hockey for us right now," Smith, another Florida castoff, said after setting up Marchessault’s goals, both of them beauties. "Everyone’s excited. It’s a big win for us. I think every professional player loves being able to step up on these stages."
Marchessault adores it. His swagger is the most noticeable of the three forwards. He’s also the loudest on his line, constantly chatting and chirping on the ice. But damn, he walks the walk.
"If you’re going to talk out there in the media that you have to be better, I think you need to lead by example," he said. "I tried to do that tonight.
"Definitely satisfied with our effort tonight. Every time when you get a big game for our group, we show up. And tonight, we definitely showed up. I think we showed the hockey world that we owned the right to be here and we’re able to play against a great team."
After Tomas Tatar jammed a puck in at the post to make it 1-0 for Vegas at 13:23 of the first period, Marchessault beat Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck on a breakaway to double the lead at 17:22 during an 8-0 run in shots for the Knights.
Marchessault didn’t even look at Reilly on the two-on-zero after his linemate poked the puck away from Kyle Connor in the neutral zone as the Jets were on a line change.
When Connor redeemed himself by banking a sharp-angle shot through Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Jets some hope, down 2-1 at 7:17 of the third period, Marchessault counter-punched and easily sent Hellebuyck the wrong way to finish a two-on-one with Smith at 8:45.
Marchessault is not big, but he has a big-game aura.
Asked at the morning skate the difference in Marchessault now from the start of the season, Knights’ coach Gerard Gallant said: "More competitive. First time I saw Marchy, he was a skilled guy who stayed on the outside. Didn’t really battle. The reason why he’s a 30-40 goal-scorer now is because he’s more competitive. He’ll go to those hard areas to score some goals. Small guy, but very competitive."
Big heart to go with big skill.