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Feisty Marchessault wills Golden Knights to crucial win in Winnipeg

Golden Knights Marchessault

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Vegas Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault (81) celebrates his goal with teammates during the second period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks, Sunday, May 6, 2018, in San Jose, Calif.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault didn’t mince words after the Game 1 loss to the Jets on Saturday night.

A particularly feisty Marchessault stared through the bright lights and bouquet of microphones in the crowded locker room, told reporters the next game was a “must win” and that “we are going to show what kind of team we are.”

Monday night Marchessault backed his words up with a magnificent performance on the ice.

He scored a pair of dazzling goals for the Golden Knights as they topped the Jets 3-1 to knot the Western Conference finals series at 1-1 heading back to Las Vegas.

“I’m definitely satisfied with our effort tonight,” Marchessault said. “Every time we need a big game out of our group, we show up. I think we showed the hockey world that we earned the right to be here, and we are able to play against a great team.”

Coach Gerard Gallant wasn’t fond of the use of the term “must win” after the first loss, but Marchessault simply can’t help himself.

The scrappy 5-foot-9 forward may be the smallest guy on the ice most of the time, but the competitive fire that burns inside him extinguishes any physical disadvantage.

“That’s the reason why we love him,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “You know what you’re going to get out of him, and when you know what you’re going to get out of a guy, it allows you to go out and do your job. You have to bring your A-game to get to that same level.”

Linemate Reilly Smith found Marchessault midway through the first period as he was streaking through the neutral zone and fed him a pass right onto the tape of his stick. Marchessault screamed past the Jets defense for a breakaway, and effortlessly deked the goalie before sliding the puck between his pads for the goal.

“That line was incredible,” Schmidt said. “We had a really good team win tonight, but some guys really elevated their game to another level.”

Vegas was nursing a 2-0 lead entering the third period, but the Jets fought back. Kyle Connor snuck a shot through Marc-Andre Fleury to cut the deficit to one goal with 12:43 to play in the game.

The sold-out Bell MTS Center exploded in celebration and the Jets appeared to have swung the momentum in their favor.

Before the fans were even able to sit back down, Marchessault skated to the front of the net, received another perfect pass from Smith, and backhanded the puck past Connor Hellebuyck to seal the game for Vegas.

“He’s a good player; he finds those soft areas unbelievably well, and he goes to the net hard,” Smith said. “He’s a small target but he’s always there.”

Marchessault regularly gets into altercations after the whistle with players who tower over him. His competitiveness runs outside of the hockey rink as well.

“Anything that we do whether it’s soccer, basketball, when we’re hanging around playing cards,” Schmidt said, laughing. “He’s always fired up, and he’s easy to fire up too, which is the best part.”

Players have commented on Marchessault’s inability to handle losing to teammates on the miniature basketball hoop they have at the practice facility, so getting him fired up for a crucial game in the Western Conference Finals isn’t difficult.

“If you’re going to go out there and talk to the media, and say the team has to be better, then you need to lead by example,” Marchessault said. “I tried to do that tonight.”

Marchessault leads Vegas this postseason in goals (6) and points (15).

“It was definitely an important game for our group,” he said. “Our effort last game was good but not good enough. I wanted to step up and do my job the best, and I’m satisfied with my game.”

The win drastically changes the dynamic of the series. A Jets win to take a 2-0 series lead would have given them about a 90 percent chance to win, but Vegas has now tied things up, with the majority of the games remaining at the friendly confines of T-Mobile Arena.

“You’re playing against great players and that’s what you want,” Schmidt said. “You want to test yourself every night and you want to be able to leave your mark on the game. We have to make sure we come out with the same intensity that we did tonight and maybe a little bit extra. They aren’t going to roll over for us, they’re going to come back with a great game.”

The chip lodged on Marchessault’s shoulder appears to be permanent. The 27-year-old led the Florida Panthers with 30 goals last season (seven more than the next-highest scorer), yet the team exposed him during June’s expansion draft.

This year in Las Vegas he proved his breakout season was no fluke, with 27 goals and 48 assists, and is now leading the Golden Knights in the playoffs.

“That’s the story of our club,” Marchessault said. “We were all (considered to be) not part of the center of our (former) teams, and everybody seized the opportunity here, and that’s what has made our success.”

Marchessault may be more brash about it, but his demeanor represents the overall feel of the team and plays a considerable role in their success.

“We are just a bunch of hockey players who wanted to find a home and we did,” he said, “and we’ve been awesome.”

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