Given the goaltending performance put forth by Vancouver Canucks rookie Thatcher Demko, it might have been easy to forget that Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights pitched three shutouts in the second-round series. What we won’t forget is the white noise that was created when backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s agent put out a tweet that essentially said Fleury had been stabbed in the back by Vegas coach Peter DeBoer and the legion of fans who thought Fleury deserved to be treated better.
Call it vindication, if you will. Call it anything you want, but it’s clear that DeBoer made the right choice and Lehner proved him right. If there were ever any doubt, it was completely erased when Lehner made a mind-boggling glove save on Brock Boeser at the 10:42 mark of the second period of Game 7. Forget that it was just the Canucks’ fourth shot of the game. Had it gone in, it had the potential to change the complexion of the game, one that was eventually won 3-0 by the Golden Knights on the strength of a goal by Shea Theodore with just over six minutes left, followed by two empty-netters.
“I know that you say I can’t save back door shots,” Lehner said to one of his inquisitors after the game, “but the big man can move when he wants to.” (“Nice,” said teammate Jonathan Marchessault, who was sitting beside him.)
Perhaps it was a passive-aggressive answer from an aggressive goaltender, but in case you haven’t noticed, goaltending is a bit of a touchy subject in Vegas these days. The tweet by Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, created a huge stir and a fair bit of tension in the bubble for the Golden Knights. Fleury did get one back-to-back start in the series and there seemed to be a lot of people opining that he should get the start in Game 7. DeBoer stood by Lehner, who allowed three goals on 23 shots in the Golden Knights’ Game 6 loss. And even though Lehner had to stop only 14 shots, Vegas won the game, so you simply cannot second-guess DeBoer’s decision. You just can’t.
“I can’t tell you how hard a game that is for a goalie to play in,” DeBoer said. “When you’re not getting any action, your team is peppering the other team in both possession and shots and you’re waiting, but the chances they get and the breaks they get are Grade A’s. That’s why I loved Robin’s game. He doesn’t chase it, he’s not looking for it. He waits for it to come to him and he made a couple of huge saves at key times where the game could have easily swung like it did (in Game 6) when we didn’t get the first or second goal.”
There are only a handful of people who are privy to what Fleury was told when the Golden Knights acquired Lehner at the trade deadline. There are some who insist Fleury was told that he was the No. 1 man and Lehner was an insurance policy, a course that has obviously changed if that were the case. But even if Fleury were told that, does it really matter? Coaches are judged on wins and losses and there is not a coach in any league in any world who will not make a difficult decision if he feels it gives his team the best chance to win. This is the NHL and these athletes have to deal with this kind of uncertainty all the time. By all accounts, Fleury has been spectacular in dealing with this, although it’s strange that he took more than 24 hours to have his agent delete the tweet. Whether it is fair or not, Lehner is clearly the No. 1 for the Golden Knights as they continue to chase a Stanley Cup in just their third season of existence. That chase continues, likely Sunday, when they face the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.
Speaking of tweets, Lehner sent out a very simple one after the game that consisted of two words – “No doubt!!!” There is absolutely no disputing the fact that the more deserving team won this series, so perhaps Lehner was justified in feeling so confident. “You look at the last three games and we’ve played some really, really good hockey,” Lehner said. “You have to give credit to their goalie. He came in and played unbelievable, but the luck wasn’t on our side either, a bunch of posts and open nets and what they shot just went in. Coming into this game, I felt really confident that we were going to win and we just stuck with it.”