Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault wanted to lead by example in Game 2, and he did so with a standout performance that has helped Vegas draw level in the Western Conference final.
It was no grand proclamation and he certainly stopped short of a guarantee, but Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault made clear ahead of Game 2 of the Western Conference final that Vegas not only could, but would, be better. And following the Golden Knights’ 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, a road win in a raucous building that drew the series level at one win apiece, Vegas made good on that promise.
As one might expect, too, Marchessault was far and away the Golden Knights’ best player in Game 2 of the best-of-seven, a contest which he referred to as a must-win prior to the proceedings. “If you’re going to talk out there in the media (and say) that you need to be better, you have to lead by example,” Marchessault said. “I tried to do that tonight.”
Saying he tried, though, would be at best a modest assessment of his own game. Marchessault scored twice in the outing and both goals were tremendously important. The first, a tidy breakaway tally scored following a broken play in the neutral zone, was Vegas’ second and gave them a 2-0 lead late in the first frame. The second was one that hushed a temporarily rejuvenated Bell MTS Place. A minute-and-a-half after Kyle Connor trimmed the Golden Knights’ lead to one, Marchessault broke in on a 2-on-1 with Reilly Smith and made no mistake, burying a backhand over the outstretched glove of Connor Hellebuyck.
“That’s the reason why we love him,” said Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt of Marchessault’s performance. “You know what you’re going to get out of him. When you know what you’re going to get out of a guy, it allows you to go out and do your job knowing that you’re going to get this from other players. And you have to bring your ‘A’ game in order to elevate to get to that same level.”
The two-goal game alone surely would have been enough for Marchessault to earn his praise, too, but his performance went above and beyond finding twine twice. He had eight shots, 11 shot attempts, produced six scoring chances, forced a couple of takeaways and even chipped in on the dot, winning three of five faceoffs when he was called upon. Marchessault played with an edge, as well. Faced with an early challenge from Jacob Trouba, tussling with the Jets defender to the extent both were sent off for roughing.
“He’s a fiery, fiery player,” said Golden Knights winger James Neal. “He’s been great for us all year. Coming up with big goals and tonight that line (Marchessault, Smith and William Karlsson) was dominant. All three of those guys play well together and ‘Marchy’ finishes it off when he needs to. Huge for us all night.”
Marchessault’s contributions were especially helpful, too, when considering the way in which it allowed Vegas to settle into the game. In Game 1, Winnipeg leapt to a 3-0 lead, scoring their first goal little more than a minute into the opening frame. And while the Jets had chances early — a backhand from Mark Scheifele trickled through and was barely kept out by Marc-Andre Fleury and a Nikolaj Ehlers backhand clanked iron — Tomas Tatar’s goal to put Vegas ahead and Marchessault’s subsequent insurance markers allowed the Golden Knights to settle into the game.
“Fleury had to make three or four real good saves in the first seven or eight minutes of the game, he made some solid saves,” said Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. “He rebounded after that, we got that 2-0 lead and it was a different game for us. When teams are chasing the lead, it’s tough for teams to battle back. It’s happened a few times in the playoffs, but when you get a 2-0 lead, it’s tough on the other team, and I thought we did a good job.”
And as the contest wore on, it was evident the Golden Knights were drawing some inspiration from the Jets’ past opponents. In the second round, Winnipeg was often forced to dump and chase against a Nashville Predators team that was content to congest the middle of the ice and, when necessary, limit all opportunities to the outside of the ice. Truth be told, the final 40 minutes from Vegas looked as though it was pulled right from the Nashville playbook.
“They’ve got a lot of guys who (can provide) quick strike offense,” Neal said. “They’re jumping through holes and you give them a little bit of room and they’re by you. So, for us, we’re trying to clog it up as much as we can. I think that feeds into our game, too. Once we turn pucks over, we’re going the other way quick.”
Pair the smothering neutral-zone play with tight defensive structure in their own zone and the Golden Knights’ patented high-pressure forecheck and it was tough for the Jets to get anything after earning those aforementioned early opportunities. The lone goal, Connor’s third-period marker, came on the power play, and Winnipeg’s attack appeared frustrated at times. And that’s exactly how the Golden Knights need to play, exactly what they need to do, in order to continue to find success against the Jets. It’s also exactly what they needed to draw this series level.
“Every time we need a big effort out of our group, we show up,” Marchessault said. “Tonight, we definitely showed up and I think we showed the hockey world that we own the right to be here and we’re able to play against a great team.”
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