It took an expansion team on an unprecedented jaunt through the Stanley Cup playoffs to finally cool down the Jets.
The Vegas Golden Knights did what nobody else has been able on Wednesday night, beating them 4-2 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference series.
It is the first time Winnipeg has trailed this postseason, and the first consecutive losses for the team in regulation in more than three months. The series continues at T-Mobile Arena on Friday before a fifth game is played in Winnipeg on Sunday afternoon.
Vegas is 10-3 in its first stab at the playoffs and a step closer to reaching the Stanley Cup final, which seemed like folly when a patchwork team of castoffs was put together to surround Marc-André Fleury last summer. The Jets had never reached the second round before their current run.
Earlier, they eliminated Minnesota and Nashville, the best team in the league during the regular season.
It remains to be seen if the Golden Knights can put the Jets on life support with another triumph in the Nevada desert in Game 4. The team that has gone up 2-1 in a semi-final has gone on to win 35 of 43 series since 1975.
The Jets could not have gotten off to a worse start. A turnover led to a breakaway and an easy goal by Jonathan Marchessault 35 seconds into the game.
The Golden Knights’ defence kept them so bottled up that they were held to just three shots on net in the first period. Winnipeg failed to register a shot on its lone power play, and nearly gave up a goal seconds after it expired. Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck reached out and snatched a shot from the left wing by William Karlsson to prevent his team from going down 2-0.
Fleury put on a show early in the second. About four minutes in, he stopped a hard shot from Adam Lowry, then dived with his glove outstretched to snag a one-timer ripped from in front of the net by Dustin Byfuglien.
Mark Scheifele did what he has for the Jets all postseason, tying the game 1-1 with 14:32 remaining in the second. It was Scheifele’s 13th goal of the playoffs.
The tie lasted 12 seconds − all it took for James Neal to deposit a puck past Hellebuyck after he failed to clear it from behind the net. Alex Tuch then took a sweet pass from behind the net from Neal to score 2½ minutes later.
At 3-1, the Golden Knights appeared to be in control heading into the final period. Then Scheifele struck for a second time just 18 seconds after the puck dropped. The Jets began putting tremendous pressure on Fleury, who faced 33 shots in the game, but he was up to the task.
With 11:55 left, he deflected a shot by Tyler Myers on a breakaway. Two minutes later, he dived and flopped and stopped two more from point-blank range. The Golden Knights crowd chanted their goalie’s name over and over. Hockey is new here, but winning catches on pretty quickly. Marchessault scored an empty-netter with seconds left to seal the victory.
Fleury bounced back after a loss in Game 1 to stop 30 of 31 shots in Game 2 and lead the Golden Knights to a 3-1 victory. He is having the best postseason of his career with a 1.68 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage entering Game 3. He is the first goalie to record four shutouts in the playoffs since 2011, when Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Boston’s Tim Thomas also had four.
Before the game, acrobats from Cirque du Soleil entertained spectators as they waited outside in the heat. Once the doors opened, at least one guy dressed as Elvis was in the building.
During an extravagant pregame show, a fellow dressed in armour and carrying a sword slayed an adversary waving a Jets flag and then sliced up a video projection of a giant jet displayed on the ice.
Carnell Johnson, a singer who gives gondola tours in canals around the Venetian resort hotel, did the anthems, pausing politely so Winnipeg followers could scream “True north” during O Canada. Fans of both teams cheered as the family of Darcy Haugan, the Humboldt Broncos coach killed in last month’s horrific bus crash in Saskatchewan, were introduced.
The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division and went the entire season without suffering three losses in a row. They are one of only two teams to win more than one playoff series in their inaugural season since 1918. The St Louis Blues reached the Stanley Cup final in 1968 but played in a division that consisted of expansion teams.
“It has been a good story,” said Ben Chiarot, a Winnipeg defenceman. “It is good for the league to have a new team come in and perform the way they have.
“At first, you think it is from teams kind of taking them lightly. Around Christmas time, we played them and saw they are the real deal. They are a good team and that is why they are here.”
“They are relentless,” said Mathieu Perreault, the Jets centre. “We knew they weren’t going to fold and let us take two games at home. They battled hard and played great. That’s what we expected. Now, we have a series.”