The Winnipeg Jets were coming at Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in unrelenting waves in the third period, using their brawn and skill to create dangerous scoring opportunities in an effort to pull even in the third game of the Western Conference final.
Just over eight minutes into the period on Wednesday it looked like the Jets would succeed.
That’s when forward Mark Scheifele, the most prolific scorer in this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, found himself in the left circle with the puck on his stick and only Fleury between him and new life for the Jets. Scheifele shot. Fleury got his right toe on it but inadvertently deflected the rebound into the slot.
“That wasn’t ideal,” Fleury acknowledged.
Scheifele pounced and shot again. Fleury made a frantic dive to his left and got his body in front of it, advancing the Golden Knights’ improbable playoff drive again as the emotional and competitive backbone of a 4-2 victory at T-Mobile Arena that gave them a 2-1 series lead.
“He’s been doing it all playoffs, his whole life,” said Vegas forward James Neal, who took an elbow to the face from Dustin Byfuglien and missed part of the first period to undergo concussion protocol but returned to contribute a goal and an assist. “That was a key moment.”
It was an extraordinary display, but then again, nearly everything the first-year Golden Knights have done has defied belief. Their success stems from their speed and balance, and the exploits of players like undersized but big-hearted forward Jonathan Marchessault, who scored in the first and last minute on Wednesday. But it’s all possible because of Fleury’s skills and also his humor: During a blowout win over San Jose in the second round he joined fans in doing the wave, and when a scrum formed in front of him on Wednesday, he reached in and playfully tickled the left ear of startled Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler.
“I did that?” he said, in a tone of pretend innocence. “There are cameras everywhere.”
“That’s a Flower move for sure,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said, using Fleury’s nickname. “He’s been around long enough to know when you’ve got to be serious, when you keep things light. An intense game like that he wants to be light and that’s what makes him very good.”
After the game, Fleury again showed he has his priorities in order. Still wearing pads scarred by pucks from some of his 33 saves, he spent time with Carson and Jackson Haugan, whose father, Darcy, was the coach and general manager of the Humboldt Broncos junior team and was among the 16 people killed in a bus crash in rural Saskatchewan last month. Fleury chatted with the boys, answered their questions, made them feel at home in the crowded locker room. It was a touching moment, grander than the noise and flashing lights and everything else that happened on Wednesday.
And a lot did happen, starting with Marchessault’s goal 35 seconds into the first period. McNabb, who was credited with a game-high seven hits, created a turnover in the neutral zone and quickly got the puck up to Marchessault. Taking full advantage of his speed, Marchessault escaped the clutches of Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba and maintained control of the puck. He used his deft stickhandling skills to deke goaltender Connor Hellebuyck before he slipped a backhander into the net.
The Jets made it 1-1 at 5:28 of the second period, when Scheifele tipped a sharp-angled shot by Wheeler past Fleury at 5:28, but the tie didn’t last long. Hellebuyck was attempting to bang the puck off the boards and out of danger but Vegas center Erik Haula intercepted the puck and passed it in front to Neal, who had an easy time scoring at 5:40 for his fourth goal of the playoffs. Alex Tuch extended the lead to 3-1 at 8:13 when Neal captured the rebound of a shot Hellebuyck had saved, went behind the net and came out on the other side to feed Tuch, whose goal touched off more roars from the amped-up crowd.
“Coming in here I just wanted to help this team any way I could, especially on the ice,” Fleury said. “Here we are. It’s been a long and fun road so far.”
He has made that trip both enjoyable and possible. And it’s not over yet.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen