Marc-Andre Fleury looked helpless.
The Golden Knights goaltender was down and out of position after making a fantastic pad save on Mark Scheifele’s drive midway through the third period Wednesday. When the rebound came back to Scheifele, the standout sniper had an open net staring back at him.
But Fleury made a diving stop to deny the NHL’s leading goal scorer this postseason and helped preserve the Knights’ 4-2 victory over Winnipeg in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final at T-Mobile Arena.
“He’s been doing it all playoffs, doing it his whole life,” forward James Neal said. “It was a great save, key moment of the game. Game saver.”
Jonathan Marchessault had two goals, including an empty-netter with 2.7 seconds remaining that allowed the announced crowd of 18,477 to exhale after a tense third period.
Neal, who missed most of the first period after taking an elbow to the face from Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, added a goal and an assist as the Knights took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game 4 is 5 p.m. Friday at T-Mobile Arena.
“For 10 minutes they kept pushing us and pushing us and Fleury had to make some great saves,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “There was a lot of chatter on our bench, ‘Let’s get it going again boys.’ We had to get back and play like we had in the first two periods.”
The Knights followed a similar script to their Game 2 victory, forcing the Jets into a handful of glaring mistakes while taking away their speed through the neutral zone.
But Winnipeg made a strong push over the final two periods and closed within 3-2 when Scheifele banged in his second goal of the game, and 14th of the postseason, 18 seconds into the third period.
The Jets continued to apply pressure, and it almost paid off with a little less than 10 minutes remaining.
Blake Wheeler found Scheifele in the slot for a one-timer that forced Fleury to stretch out his right pad for one of his 33 saves. However, Scheifele pounced on the rebound, and after Fleury scrambled to regain his balance, he leaped headfirst across the crease to smother the shot that would have tied the game at 3.
“It was just a pass across and I think I was maybe a little surprised he shot through our guy and I just tried to reach and get a piece of it,” Fleury said. “It hit my toe and went back into the middle of the slot, so that wasn’t ideal. He had a lot of time and some room to shoot, so I just tried to get as much body as I could in front of it. Got a piece, so I was happy about that.”
Added defenseman Luca Sbisa: “It’s crazy how he does that. He’s been doing it all year. He’s been winning games like that for us, and especially as a (defenseman), it’s nice to know if you mess up or whatever, you’ve got a guy like that in net to bail you out.”
Scheifele tied the score 1-1 when he redirected Wheeler’s pass from the corner past Fleury at 5:28 of the second period.
But the Knights answered 12 seconds later to go up 2-1, taking advantage of a misplay by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck behind his net.
Erik Haula ended up with the puck and found Neal in front for his fourth goal of the playoffs.
“I think he probably saw I was around there. It was a great pass by him,” Neal said. “It was a timely goal, just because they got one right there. When you score and then the other team gets one right after, that sucks the wind right back out of you. The energy just turned right away.”
Neal then helped give the Knights a 3-1 lead less than three minutes later, as he blew past Winnipeg defenseman Toby Enstrom and fired a shot that was stopped by Hellebuyck. But Neal grabbed the rebound, circled the net and put the puck in front for Alex Tuch, who stuffed it past Hellebuyck for his fifth goal of the postseason.
Knights come out flying
“We got off to a fast start, and that was a big key for tonight,” Knights defenseman Shea Theodore said. “We feel like we get that momentum and get the crowd into it. The building was loud all night, and it makes it a lot more fun to play.”
The Knights got off to slow starts in the first two games of the series but came out hot in their first home game since May 4, holding Winnipeg to three shots on goal in the opening period.
Not long after a wild pregame ceremony that included a performer being lifted up to the rafters, an exploding animated jet and a real flyover above T-Mobile Arena, Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb forced a turnover from Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele at the blue line and sent the puck out of his zone.
Jets defensemen Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey bumped into each other in the neutral zone as Trouba appeared to be headed for a line change and Marchessault outraced Trouba to the loose puck.
Marchessault then made a move to his backhand — all three of his goals in the series have come on his backhand — and slid the puck past Connor Hellebuyck for his seventh goal of the postseason 35 seconds into the game.
“I’m just trying to go off what he gives me,” Marchessault said. “I never really score backhand goals, so it just kind of happens like that. He tried to poke-check me and I was able to just read it quick and put it past him.”
1. Let’s get physical. Tensions started to rise between the Golden Knights and Jets in Game 3. There was one scrum in the second period that saw goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury tickle Winnipeg forward Mark Scheifele’s ear, and a near brawl after the final horn.
2. Fleury climbs charts. Fleury passed Jacques Plante for ninth all time with his 72nd career postseason victory. He tied Henrik Lundqvist for 10th in career appearances by a goalie (129).
3. Missing Ehlers. The Jets played without speedy wing Nikolaj Ehlers and their second line struggled in his absence. The trio of Paul Stastny, Patrik Laine and Brandon Tanev were held scoreless, though Laine hit the post late in the second period.
David Schoen Review-Journal