LAS VEGAS — Gerard Gallant wasn’t a believer in October, but the Vegas Golden Knights head coach was confident by January his expansion team had what it took to go deep in the playoffs.
The Knights led the NHL’s Western Conference final two games to one after beating the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 on Wednesday.
Game 4 is back at T-Mobile Arena on Friday. The series returns to Winnipeg for Sunday’s Game 5.
The Knights are two victories away from advancing to the Stanley Cup final, which no modern-era expansion team has ever done.
The series winner meets the victor of the Eastern Conference final between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Caps led that series 2-1.
"I didn’t know if we’d go this far right now, but I knew we had a chance as anybody else," Gallant said.
"In October, I didn’t believe that, but early January around the all-star game, I was a strong believer in our team. I knew we were going to battle well, compete well and no one was going to push us over that’s for sure."
Knights assistant captain James Neal recovered from a Dustin Byfuglien elbow in the first period to score and assist on the eventual winner in the second.
Jonathan Marchessault scored twice, including an empty-netter, for a team-leading eight playoff goals, while Alex Tuch also contributed a goal to the victory.
Mark Scheifele scored his NHL-leading 13th and 14th playoff goals for Winnipeg, but the Jets suffered a second straight loss for the first time this post-season after falling 3-1 at home Monday in Game 2
"They’re going to have their games, we’re going to have our games," Scheifele said. "We can’t sulk on this too long. We gotta pick ourselves up tomorrow and be ready for a big game on Friday."
His 11th playoff goal on the road bettered the NHL record of 10 previously held by Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had 33 saves for the win. The 34-year-old from Sorel, Que., held off the Jets late in a third period in which Winnipeg outshot Vegas 16-8.
"He’s made unbelievable saves," Gallant said. "That’s Fleury. He’s been great all playoffs, he’s been great all year for us.
"He’s a guy that has fun out there. I’m sweating on the bench yelling my head off and I look down there and he’s just having fun."
Jets starter Connor Hellebuyck turned away 27-of 30 shots in the loss. His mistake in the second period cost Winnipeg momentum after Scheifele’s first goal tied the game 1-1.
Scheifele pulled the visitors within a goal 18 seconds into the third period, but the Jets couldn’t solve Fleury again even with Hellebuyck pulled for an extra attacker in the last minute.
Neal restored the host team’s lead 12 seconds after Scheifele’s goal in the second period. Erik Haula stole the puck from Hellebuyck behind the Jets net and fed Neal out front.
"The guy knocked it out of mid-air," Winnipeg’s goalie explained. "It’s unlucky that he knocked that one down. But good play on him. I’m going to clean that one up. I haven’t given it away too many times this year."
The Knights led 1-0 and Winnipeg had just three shots on net after the opening period, to the delirium of the white-towel-waving full house at T-Mobile.
After a pre-game show featuring a Knight slicing a holographic jet in half with his sword, Marchessault produced the first two shots of the game and scored on the second just 35 seconds after puck drop.
The 27-year-old from Cap-Rouge, Que., beat Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba in a footrace into the offensive zone to score on Hellebuyck with a backhand shot.
Notes: The Golden Knights hosted the family of Humboldt Broncos coach Darcy Haugan, who died in a bus crash in April en route to a playoff game … Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Jets and George McPhee of the Golden Knights joined Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning as finalists for NHL general manager of the year … Knights assistant captain David Perron (illness) sat out a second straight game … Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers was also scratched for an undisclosed reason with Jack Roslovic drawing in … A Game 6, if necessary would be May 22 back in Las Vegas and a Game 7 would be May 24 in Winnipeg.