Goalie Whispering is as much science as it is art, as much statistical examination as hepatomancy, as much logic as hunch. It came as a surprise when the Vegas Golden Knights turned to backup Robin Lehner to start in net for Game 4, because Marc-Andre Fleury had generally been a rock for them through the season and the playoffs. It was Lehner’s first start in 21 days, and his second in 42, and it was not exactly coming in the wake of a Fleury meltdown that obviously necessitated his benching. Sure, Fleury had a couple of soft games to allow the Canadiens to take a 2-1 series lead, and yeah, his giveaway near the end of regulation in Game 3 was a backbreaker. But if you view the Knights as being a team with a clear No. 1—and Fleury’s Vezina-finalist season suggests they are—and if you believe that Lehner didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in his lone postseason appearance—and the seven goals he allowed in that game more than suggest he did not—it was still a curious move. It was also the right move, it turns out, because none of this has to make sense; it just has to work.
Lehner stopped 27 of 28 shots in Vegas’s 2-1 overtime win Sunday night, none bigger than a stoning of Cole Caufield on a breakaway that changed the vibe of this game and felt like it has the potential to do the same for the series.
It wasn’t a spectacular-looking save—a pad smothering is never going to be as sexy as a glove snatch—but it was, perhaps, the ultimate triumph of a bench-bound goalie paying attention in the film room.
“It’s a world-class player coming down. You play it like the first goal and challenge him,” Lehner said. “In the pre-scout we thought he likes to go high or he goes five hole. Looked like he was going five hole, so I closed my leg.”
Lehner is not your typical backup. He’s one of the better goalies in hockey, and when Vegas signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal, it was easy to imagine him and Fleury in a 1A and 1B situation, or even the 29-year-old Swede, seven years younger than Fleury, taking over the primary role. Fleury thwarted that for now with one of the best seasons of his career, but having Lehner might prove to be the biggest difference between these Knights and the Knights of playoff disappointments past. No disrespect to those guys, but Lehner is not Malcolm Subban or Maxime Lagace. And it’s clear that head coach Pete DeBoer isn’t keen on possessing an option as good as Lehner and not using it.
DeBoer knew he’d have to explain his decision to start Lehner over Fleury in Game 4, and he did so refreshingly, in a way that both protects any egos and seems to make an awful lot of sense. After observing that no other goalie has started as many games as Fleury in this postseason, and at age 36 to boot, DeBoer put his decision in terms that treat goalie as just another position from which to wring maximum value.
“We talked going into the playoffs about using our depth, and we haven’t been afraid to do it,” DeBoer said. “We haven’t been afraid to do it on defense. We’ve used seven. We haven’t been afraid to do it up front. Different guys have come in and got the job done for us. And we’re not going to be afraid to do it in net.”
I like that quote a lot. Maybe Fleury could indeed benefit from a couple of days of rest, and because they’ve got a backup as talented as Lehner, it doesn’t mean the Knights have to lose a step.
I do think the Golden Knights are just about the only team that DeBoer’s logic could possibly serve, because no other team has a backup quite as seasoned or skilled as Lehner, but also because Fleury has been down this road before, and there’s little chance of this shaking his confidence if and when he’s called back into action. He’s been around the block. He’s watched from the bench a couple Cups get hoisted. “I’ve been through this before,” he said. DeBoer knows it too: “He’s great. … You move forward. Short memories.”
(Although, has anyone checked in on Allan Walsh?)
After that performance, Lehner will no doubt be in net for Game 5, and it’s his job to lose right now. But as DeBoer has shown, it won’t even take a true stinker for him to go back to Fleury. It’s riding the hot hand, but with two netminders solid enough that even their floors are often good enough to win, never mind their ceilings. It’s a weapon that only Vegas has. (Try to imagine what non-injury scenario would be enough for Jake Allen to see action this series. You can’t.) For most teams, to borrow an old chestnut from NFL quarterback controversies, if you have two goalies, you have none. If you’re the Golden Knights, it just means you actually have two.