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LAS VEGAS – The Vegas Golden Knights appear to be playing on a racetrack these days, while the Winnipeg Jets seem to be stuck at times rolling through a school zone.
Speed was definitely the difference Wednesday night, as the surprising expansion team from Sin City wheeled and dealed their way to a 4-2 victory that puts them in the driver's seat in the Western Conference final.
Vegas now leads the best-of-seven series 2-1.
"We just didn’t have it off the start. You get behind, it’s tough," a frustrated Jets captain Blake Wheeler said following the game. "You put yourself in a tough position when you’re down by a couple goals on the road, tough environment against a good team. So the onus is on us to get off to a better start."
Winnipeg got out to a fast start by taking the opener at home Saturday thanks to three first-period goals, but they've mostly slowed to a crawl since, unable to generate much against a team that is routinely making them eat their dust.
They finally got things in gear late in the game Wednesday but fell short of completing the comeback. This marks the first time Winnipeg has lost two straight games in the playoffs, and the first time they've trailed in a series.
"That's an important challenge. We're going to have to be able to handle that. It would be rare that you lead the series straight through. We want to make sure we deal with our loss, don't carry it too heavily and then come up with our finest game of the post-season," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
There are few players who can motor better than the Golden Knights' Jonathan Marchessault, and he wasted no time in beating Jacob Trouba to a loose puck, fighting off the Jets defender and scoring on a breakaway just 35 seconds into the game. Winnipeg had a chance to get the puck deep seconds earlier but failed to do so, and Mark Scheifele's turnover proved costly as it immediately came back the other way and into their net.
You couldn't have scripted a better first shift for Vegas — or a worse one by Winnipeg. Marchessault was the Game 2 hero for Vegas by scoring twice in Monday's 3-1 win at Bell MTS Place, including a breakaway dagger in the third period when Winnipeg had closed to within one.
Winnipeg was lucky to escape the first period of Game 3 down just one goal, as they were positively dreadful. They nearly took as many minor penalties (two) as they did shots (three) in the opening frame.
"Mostly our puck movement, but that's generated with the feet movement," Maurice said when asked what was missing early. "When we're good (we're) a little quicker with everything we did. They were fast early. But the turnovers are the story for them getting their three."
The Jets came out more focused in the second and tied the game when Scheifele managed a perfect deflection of a Wheeler pass to beat Marc-Andre Fleury.
But any good feelings generated by that goal were short-lived.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck paid dearly for wandering behind his net on a routine dump-in off the faceoff. His pass attempt went to Erik Haula, who found James Neal alone in front of the wide-open net.
Just one goal, sure. But perhaps a major turning point in the game.
"The guy knocked it out of mid-air. He made a good play on it. I’ve been doing that all year long. It’s unlucky that he knocked that one down. I don’t know that he was even looking. He might have just swung his stick at it. But good play on him. I’m going to clean that one up. I haven’t given it away too many times this year. So we gotta put that one behind us," said Hellebuyck.
Neal had left the game in the first period after being knocked woozy by what appeared to be a Dustin Byfuglien elbow to the face, but he returned to action after a brief stint in the dressing room.
Neal factored into the next goal, blowing by Jets defenceman Toby Enstrom, circling behind the net and feeding the puck to Alex Tuch, who converted an easy tap-in after the Jets failed to contain him in front. The goal came less than three minutes after Vegas had regained the lead and following a Kyle Connor turnover.
Winnipeg fired 16 shots at Fleury in the second period but only beat him once. Patrik Laine rang one off the post on a power play, and Mathieu Perreault appeared to have an open net only to hit the Vegas goalie in the back of the leg.
The Jets made it interesting by dominating the third period.
Scheifele struck again just 18 seconds into the frame. Connor won a puck battle behind the net and fed him in the slot. It's an NHL-leading 14th of the playoffs for Scheifele, and a post-season record-setting 11th on the road.
Tyler Myers nearly tied it midway through the third, using his long reach to create a turnover in his own zone that led to a clear-cut breakaway. But he was turned away by Fleury.
Scheifele later had two glorious chances, but Fleury robbed him with a pad save and then a diving chest stop that earned him a standing ovation from the home crowd.
"We know that was our game. We were playing our game. We just have to do that for a full 60 minutes," said Scheifele. "They’re a good team. They’re in the conference finals. They play good all over the ice. So it’s a tough challenge. We knew that coming in. We have to be at our best to beat them. It’s not an easy game out there."
Marchessault iced it with an empty-net goal with two seconds to play.
Fleury ended up with 35 saves, including 30 over the final two periods. Hellebuyck finished with 26 stops.
"It’s not like we just lost the series, we lost another game. And that’s no big deal. We’re going to put it behind us and we’re going to keep fighting," said Hellebuyck. "They won two games, they got a couple lucky bounces. We got a couple lucky bounces. Maybe they got more. There’s a reason this is best of seven. I’m not saying they’re better than us. No. They’re fighting as hard as we are. We just gotta continue to work our butts off."
Winnipeg was without flashy forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who was a surprise late scratch. Rookie Jack Roslovic took his spot in the lineup, causing Maurice to shuffle his lines.
Brandon Tanev moved up to play on a line with Paul Stastny and Laine, while Roslovic skated with Perreault and Bryan Little.
Game 4 is set for Friday night at T-Mobile Arena, with puck drop at 7 p.m. CT.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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Updated on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 11:38 PM CDT: Updates video
12:02 AM: Full write through
12:29 AM: Adds photos