James Neal scored the tiebreaking goal and assisted on the eventual game-winner in a stretch of less than three minutes in the second period Wednesday night as the Vegas Golden Knights dumped the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
The result gives Vegas a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Friday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights can close within a game of being the first expansion team since the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
“I thought in Game 1 we weren’t good enough, but I thought we were a little better in Game 2 and we were better tonight,” Vegas winger Erik Haula said. “But the only thing that matters is winning.”
Neal’s fourth playoff goal came 12 seconds after Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele scored the first of his two goals at 5:28 of the second on a deflection of Blake Wheeler’s centering pass from the right corner.
On the ensuing play, Haula took the puck from Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck behind the net and fed Neal at the goalmouth.
“Never want to give up one right after you score a goal, but that’s what happens sometime,” Jets defensemen Tyler Myers said.
Haula said of his line, “We needed to do better and work the puck in deeper and create more opportunities for the line, and I thought we did a better job of that. ... I got my legs moving a little more. I looked at some video and saw some things I could do better.”
Neal turned passer at 8:13 of the middle period, making a perfect feed to Alex Tuch at the doorstep. Tuch flipped it past Hellebuyck for his fifth playoff goal and a 3-1 Vegas lead.
Winnipeg owned most of the third period, but other than Scheifele’s 14th postseason marker just 18 seconds into the period, the Jets couldn’t solve Marc-Andre Fleury. The Golden Knights goalie made 15 of his 33 saves in the final 20 minutes, including two terrific stops on consecutive Scheifele tries from the slot midway through the period.
Fleury also made two clutch saves on breakaways by Myers and Dustin Byfuglien. The Byfuglien save wiped out a bad giveaway in the neutral zone in the final four minutes.
“The way we played in the third, we get the chances we get, if we stick with that, we’ll be fine,” Myers said. “Fleury’s a good goalie.”
Jonathan Marchessault sealed the outcome with an empty-net tally at 19:57, his eighth goal of the playoffs.
Coming off a 3-1 victory Monday night that squared the series ledger, Vegas got off to the best possible start. Brayden McNabb forced a turnover and flung the puck down the middle for Marchessault.
The Golden Knights center outraced Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba and beat Hellebuyck with a backhander 35 seconds into the match as the building roared with delight.
The Golden Knights were the faster and better team in the first 20 minutes, carving out a 10-3 advantage in shots on goal.
Hellebuyck ended the night with 26 saves.
—Field Level Media