They called it a "must-win" before the puck dropped, not wanting to face the prospect of coming up dry in River City before heading back to the desert.
And while their season wasn't on the line Monday night at Bell MTS Place, the Vegas Golden Knights certainly played like it was. Their 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets was a defensive gem mixed with just enough timely, quick-strike offence from their talented top line.
The best-of-seven Western Conference final is now tied 1-1. Game 3 is set for T-Mobile Arena in Sin City on Wednesday, where Winnipeg will try to avoid falling behind in a playoff series for the first time all spring.
"There wasn’t a whole lot either way. That was a playoff type game. Heavy on both sides. Outside of the few minutes there, it was back and forth. It was a great hockey game," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. "We just couldn't get any momentum going."
Jonathan Marchessault scored a pair of goals, including the dagger midway through the final period that came just moments after the Jets had pulled to within one. It was a terrific bounce-back effort for the expansion club, which seemingly had no answers for Winnipeg in their 4-2 Game 1 loss on Saturday night.
"We knew it was going to be pretty emotional and high-strung. We knew they were going to be faster this game and that’s what they were. They’re a good team. This is the conference final and I don’t think anyone expected anything different," said defenceman Jacob Trouba.
Vegas actually looked like they might come in a distant second once again in the first few minutes of this one.
Mark Scheifele nearly scored a highlight-reel goal in the opening minute, deking through several Golden Knights and putting the puck through Marc-Andre Fleury's legs. It trickled perilously close to the goal line but was kept out. Less than a minute later, Nikolaj Ehlers almost broke his playoff goal-scoring drought when he fired one off the crossbar.
A nearly perfect first few minutes for the home team, right? It was wide-open hockey at this point, with the teams combining for a dozen shots in just five minutes. Keep that up and surely this style favoured the Jets.
"I don’t think anybody in here minded our start," said Trouba.
But then it was as if a switch was flipped, with Vegas realizing they were headed down a dangerous road. And they got some help from Winnipeg, who began making several self-inflicted errors that would prove costly.
"We didn't do a whole lot of clean things with the puck, but they were good. They were on the puck and didn't make it easy," said coach Paul Maurice.
With just under seven minutes to play, the Jets were reckless with the puck in their own zone and missed several chances to clear, including turnovers by Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine. Vegas made them pay, with Tomas Tatar getting a pass all alone in front of the Winnipeg net. His initial shot hit the side of the post, but Tatar was able to get his own rebound and tuck it in for the 1-0 lead.
That's the first goal of the playoffs for Tatar, who was acquired near the trade deadline from Detroit but had been a healthy scratch in seven of his team's 11 playoff games so far. He missed Saturday's opener, but was re-inserted Monday when David Perron was unable to play due to injury. Perron was the third-leading scorer for the Golden Knights during the regular-season, with 16 goals and 50 assists, and had put up seven helpers so far in the playoffs.
Vegas made it 2-0 with just under three minutes left in the period, once again pouncing on some sloppy Winnipeg play.
Rookie forward Kyle Connor was stripped of the puck in the neutral zone at the exact moment the rest of his teammates were heading off for a line change. Reilly Smith sprung Marchessault with a clear-cut breakaway, and he beat Connor Hellebuyck to silence the already subdued Whiteout crowd.
"When we give odd-man rushes I think that's when we're not close enough or our (defence) and forwards are too far apart. When we're chasing the game or down a goal or two, then I think we start giving up a little more," said Stastny.
Winnipeg was outshooting Vegas 10-5 at one point in the opening frame, only to go more than 11 minutes without firing another puck on Fleury and surrendering eight shots, and two goals, to the Golden Knights.
"There's a 10-minute block there we're not going to like very much," said Maurice. "We really got out of our routes and our patience at that point."
It actually could have been worse. Erik Haula and Ryan Carpenter both hit posts in the final minutes of the period.
"They scored two goals and we just kind of got away from it. The second one was tough, didn’t really see what happened. Just kind of a breakdown. Gave up a breakaway off the next faceoff. Just little things that are easy to clean up," Wheeler. "If you get down a goal it’s not the end of the world, there’s lots of hockey to play. When you start letting it snowball that’s when it gets more challenging."
Winnipeg started the final period with a power play and had two good chances, but Fleury denied Laine on a wrister and Scheifele on a re-direct. They finally got one past Fleury on another man-advantage with just over 12 minutes to play, as Connor's shot trickled past the Vegas netminder for his third of the playoffs.
The crowd erupted, and it seemed like the Jets might just mount a comeback.
But then came the quick response from the Golden Knights top line, as Smith once again fed Marchessault who finished off a two-on-one with a backhanded beauty. That pretty much turned out the lights as Vegas efficiently closed it out.
"We were just getting a little momentum back there and that one kind of slowed us down a bit," said Trouba. "They’re opportunistic, kind of in the same sense we can be. If you give them a little light or a little day, they’re going to take advantage of it. It didn’t really matter what line it is, each line brings a little something different to the table and they can all rattle around in the offensive zone."
Fleury finished the night with 30 saves, while Hellebuyck had 25 stops.
"It’s a series. I don’t think anybody is panicking. We’ve been here before. It’s a long series. We’re going to go to Vegas. We like our road game, we like where it was in the Nashville series and we’re going to try and bring the same effort," said Trouba.
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.
Updated on Monday, May 14, 2018 at 10:12 PM CDT: Adds more to come.
10:43 PM: Full write through.