After a rough outing in Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights returned to action Monday night exactly the way many would’ve hoped — they were pissed, and they let Winnipeg know it. The Golden Knights walked out of Bell MTS Place with a 3-1 victory over the Jets and regained momentum as the series shifts to Vegas for Games 3 and 4.
Let’s jump right in and go over some observations.
1. Schmidt shines
Had it not been for the excellent play of Nate Schmidt, the Golden Knights would have had a much harder time winning Game 2. Schmidt, who led the team with 23:17 of ice time Monday night, was a wizard all over the ice, consistently nagging at Winnipeg attackers and disrupting their cycles in the offensive zone.
One particular play that caught my eye came against Jets forward Mark Scheifele a little prior to the game’s midway point. Winnipeg had gotten a cycle going in the attacking zone with Scheifele patrolling down low. After receiving a bank pass from Dustin Byfuglien, Scheifele attempted to allude the pursing Schmidt to create a high-danger scoring chance, but Schmidt herded him to the half boards and forced a turnover, which eventually led to Vegas clearing the puck to the neutral zone.
It’s not a play that’ll be shown on any highlight reels, but Schmidt’s effort on this particular occasion was a textbook example of how to defend.
What will make the highlight reels, though, came a little earlier in the game’s opening period. In an attempt to exit the defensive zone, Jets forward Kyle Connor was greeted at the blue line by Schmidt, who pestered him into giving the puck away to Reilly Smith. Smith batted the loose puck back toward the attacking zone, where Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson just so happened to be hovering. Marchessault then raced toward Connor Hellebuyck and beat him with a gorgeous five-hole dazzler, giving Vegas the two-goal lead. And the whole play was directly influenced by the aggressive stickwork of Schmidt.
He doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves, but it’s awfully hard to find many other defensemen playing as well as Schmidt right now.
2. Marchessault the hero
We’ve already gone over how Marchessault scored his first goal of the night, but his heroics in the final period ended up making the difference for Vegas.
Just over seven minutes into the third, Kyle Connor cut the Golden Knights’ two-goal lead in half when he beat Marc-Andre Fleury with an angle shot that just squeaked past the Conn Smythe candidate, reinvigorating the raucous crowd inside Bell MTS Place.
Well, for 88 seconds at least.
Moments after Connor’s score, Marchessault potted his sixth goal of the postseason off a filthy backhander to reclaim the two-goal lead, immediately silencing those in attendance. Both the Jets and the Winnipeg whiteout were stunned, and Vegas had swiftly regained the momentum it had lost from Connor’s tally.
Could Vegas still have won without Marchessault’s second goal of the night? Of course. After all, they had largely outplayed Winnipeg for a significant portion of the game. But Marchessault’s third period dagger ultimately crushed Winnipeg’s spirit, and that was evident throughout the rest of the night.
3. Fleury superb despite soft goal
Fleury likely wasn’t happy with the goal he gave up in the third period to Kyle Connor, but aside from that, Fleury was outstanding in Game 2. The 33-year-old stopped 30 of the Jets’ 31 shots and made a number of clutch saves to limit Winnipeg to just one goal.
Some were legitimately worried about Fleury after he allowed four goals in Game 1. And that’s understandable. Fleury’s been incredible all postseason and a dip in production was bound to take place at some point. But it didn’t have to be a long-term regression. Fleury rebounded beautifully in Game 2, so fret not, #FleuryForConnSmythe crowd.
4. Tatar makes stellar return to lineup
Tomas Tatar hasn’t made the impact many were hoping he’d make when the Golden Knights acquired him at the trade deadline. For a first, second and third round draft pick, he’s fallen far short of expectations.
The 27-year-old winger has only played in five games this postseason — two against the Kings, two against the Sharks and in Game 2 against the Jets. After being held pointless in his first four postseason appearances in a Golden Knights uniform, though, Tatar finally got on the score sheet Monday night, potting his first postseason goal since the 2014-15 season. And it was an important goal, too, as he opened the scoring 13:23 into the contest.
Despite playing his first game since May 2, Tatar not only led the Knights in Corsi For percentage at 5v5 (73.33), but was the only Vegas player to not allow a single scoring chance against at 5v5 (58.33 Relative SCF%, which also led the team).
This was exactly the performance Tatar needed to earn another night out of the press box. So long as he continues to drive play and provide secondary scoring, he won’t have to worry about being a healthy scratch for a while.
5. Knights steal home-ice advantage
With Vegas winning Game 2, Winnipeg has officially surrendered its home-ice advantage to the Knights. The remaining games of the Western Conference Final are as follows:
Game 3: May 16 at Vegas, 9 p.m.
Game 4: May 18 at Vegas, 8 p.m.
Game 5: May 20 at Winnipeg, 3 p.m.
Game 6: May 22 at Vegas, 9 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 7: May 24 at Winnipeg, 8 p.m. (if necessary)
We now have a best-of-five series, and Vegas gets to play three of those five games (if necessary) in front of the Vegas faithful in T-Mobile Arena. Considering the Knights are 4-1 at home this postseason and finished the regular season with one of the best home records in the NHL (29-10-2), that’s quite an advantage to have as the series shifts to the desert.