Appearing in the second half of a postseason back-to-back with a chance to secure the Vegas Golden Knights a 3-1 stranglehold in their second-round series with the Vancouver Canucks, Marc-Andre Fleury delivered the kind of performance that we’ve long understood has been well within his capabilities.
Demonstrating his trait athleticism and resolute nature in the crease, Fleury made 28 saves on 31 shots to earn the comeback victory, with a large section of his best work coming before the Golden Knights stormed back with three goals in the third period to rescue a 5-3 victory.
There were several things Fleury displayed beyond the fact he’s still a talented netminder who can handle the load in big games. He proved that he could set aside the drama and prioritize the team after his agent provided the most succulent hockey fodder last weekend, suggesting that his client had been betrayed when clicking send on one of the more ambitious photoshops in hockey history.
Fleury also further cemented the fact he’s an all-time great in the postseason, having now eclipsed Ken Dryden for sixth on the all-time wins list.
But despite his abilities, his selflessness, his pedigree, his performance, what Fleury also seemed to show is that the Golden Knights are correct in their goaltending evaluation.
Because while he was able to win a game when thrust into the crease in the postseason’s condensed schedule, it was also a showing that continued to support the notion that Robin Lehner quite clearly affords Vegas its best chance in its pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
While certainly less so than the statistics would suggest from an uneven sample, how much better the Golden Knights are with Lehner in the crease as opposed to Fleury is up to goaltending experts, data crunchers and modellers to decide.
But whatever that margin may be, it’s an easy choice for the hockey operations staff with the Golden Knights, who seem to have realized that tough and uncomfortable decisions for even incremental improvements might very well be the difference between being a good team that makes a run, and a great team that wins it all.
We first saw this frame of mind six weeks before the Golden Knights completed the incredibly complex trade to bring in Lehner when the franchise made one of the most shocking decisions in recent history, firing the only head coach it had known to that point, Gerard Gallant.
Gallant was less than two seasons removed from leading the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion outfit and a Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s top head coach at the time of his dismissal. And while the team wasn’t measuring up to expectations through the first three-plus months, they were certainly in the mix, and that would normally be enough for a head coach to preserve their gig — even one without hosting the sort of cachet Gallant had built up in his two-plus seasons at the helm.
Except the Golden Knights saw a better option in the form of a bitter rival, and a little more than a month after Pete DeBoer was let go by the San Jose Sharks, the coach that feuded with Gallant throughout one of the most memorable first-round series in recent history was brought in as his replacement.
The results were more than incremental.
A coach that had twice brought teams to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year at the helm was having that same immediate influence. Vegas went 15-5-2 since the coaching change before the NHL’s regular season was interrupted, with both scoring and preventing goals at top-10 rates.
That success has carried into the bubble, where the Golden Knights have won 10 times and lost just twice, while also winning games and series handily on the spreadsheet, as well.
Emboldened by their expansion season, we saw some big swings from the Golden Knights to improve their roster when adding Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. We’ve seen players like Deryk Engelland step aside, and others like Erik Haula and Cody Eakin, who played major roles in the franchise’s inaugural season, pinched out.
This is a team now without weakness or concessions made through sentiment. It is not self-satisfied, or using the success it’s had in its brief history as a crutch.
This is a team that understands and fully believes in just how good it is, and with its killer instinct, will make every decision necessary in order to seize this opportunity — legacies, feelings, and agents be damned.
They grow up so fast, don’t they?
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