WINNIPEG — Jonathan Marchessault gave a blunt assessment of the Vegas Golden Knights‘ pedestrian effort in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.
The winger backed up his strong words in impressive fashion Monday to help write the latest chapter in the first-year club’s surprising story.
Marchessault scored twice and Marc-Andre Fleury made 30 saves as Vegas defeated the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 to send the best-of-seven series to Sin City tied at a game apiece.
After the Knights fell behind 3-0 early in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to open the third-round matchup, Marchessault stated: "We’re going to see what kind of team we are."
Vegas weathered another early storm in Game 2, but steadied things to grab a 2-0 lead before responding with Marchessault’s second of the night just 88 seconds after the Jets got to within one midway through the third period.
"We definitely showed up," said the 27-year-old, who was plucked from the Florida Panthers in the expansion draft last June. "We showed the hockey world that we own the right to be here."
The Knights, who swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs before downing the San Jose Sharks in six games to advance to the conference final, continue to defy the odds in a stunning inaugural campaign that saw them top the Pacific Division with 109 points.
"Everybody sees the opportunity here," Marchessault said. "We were just a bunch of hockey players that wanted to find a home, and we did."
Tomas Tatar came out of the press box to open the scoring for the Knights, while Reilly Smith added two assists.
Kyle Connor replied for the Jets, who got 25 saves from Connor Hellebuyck.
Winnipeg has now lost three of its past four games at Bell MTS Place in these playoffs after compiling the best home record in the NHL during the regular-season at 32-7-4.
"We were chasing the game again," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "We just couldn’t get any momentum going."
Games 3 and 4 go Wednesday and Friday in Vegas. Game 5 will be back in Winnipeg on Sunday afternoon.
Fleury, who has four shutouts in these playoffs, picked up the 71st post-season victory of his career to pull even with Jacques Plante for ninth on the all-time list.
"Everybody steps up at some point," Fleury said. "Everybody is contributing to the success of the team. That’s why we’ve been consistent. "
The Jets beat the Knights to open the series some 48 hours after disposing of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators 5-1 on the road in Game 7 of a second-round series that never saw a team win two straight.
Winnipeg came out fast with three goals in the first eight minutes in that one against Vegas, which had a five-day break following the defeat of San Jose, prompting Marchessault’s strong post-game statement.
"We kind of just dipped our toe in the water, a little bit of a feeling out process," Knights winger James Neal said. "We didn’t go after it. We knew what to expect tonight. We were better."
After the Jets had a number of chances during an early push Monday — including a shot from Mark Scheifele that nearly squeaked through Fleury’s pads and a Nikolaj Ehlers shot off the post — Winnipeg sagged a bit before Vegas opened the scoring with 6:37 left in the first.
A healthy scratch for seven of the Knights’ 11 playoff games coming into Monday, Tatar scored his first of the post-season off a slick feed from Shea Theodore at the side of Winnipeg’s net. The veteran forward’s initial shot hit the post, but a great second effort saw him jam the puck past Hellebuyck on the follow up.
"This locker room is really special," Tatar said. "There’s a lot of great guys and we battle for each other."
The visitors made it 2-0 with 2:38 left in the period when Smith stripped Connor in the neutral zone, leading to a breakaway for Marchessault, who made no mistake through Hellebuyck’s pads for his fifth.
Erik Haula nearly put the Knights up 3-0 seconds later, but he hit the post on another break before the puck bounced off Hellebuyck’s back and went just wide as Vegas outshot Winnipeg 8-0 in the second half of the period until Brandon Tanev’s 70-foot wrister with five seconds left.
The Jets got some momentum off a penalty kill following the intermission, but couldn’t solve Fleury on any of their eight shots in a second that also saw Andrew Copp hit the post.
Winnipeg broke Fleury’s shutout bid at 7:17 of the final period on the power play when Connor’s shot from the bottom of the left faceoff circle somehow leaked through Fleury for his third.
But Marchessault scored his second of the night and sixth of the playoffs just 1:28 later when he took a nice pass from Smith and beat Hellebuyck with a backhand to wrestle away home-ice advantage and send the series to Vegas knotted at one.
"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," Marchessault said. "I tried to do that tonight."
Notes: Game 6, if necessary, will be May 22 in Vegas, while a potential Game 7 would go May 24 in Winnipeg. … Tatar was acquired before the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings for three draft picks, but had just four goals and two assists in 20 games for Vegas in the regular season. Tatar was pointless in the playoffs before Monday. Tomas Nosek, another former Red Wings forward, also drew in on the fourth line for Vegas. David Perron (illness) and Oscar Lindberg were scratched.