LAS VEGAS — Quick, someone put a call in for the closer.
Marc Andre-Fleury might not be tired. But like last year and the year before, when he played well for Pittsburgh in the beginning of the playoffs and then handed off the reigns at the end, the Vegas goalie appears to be in need of relief.
The problem is the Golden Knights don’t have Matt Murray sitting on the bench. They have Maxime Lagace, who last played three months ago. So it’s up to Fleury, down 3-1 in the Stanley Cup final, to improve his game and try to save a series that is one more Washington win away from being over.
“His numbers look terrible, but if you broke down the goals he’s given up, it’s a lot of second or third opportunities or backdoor plays,” former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan, who is a hockey analyst for TSN, said in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. “We’ve never seen Vegas under siege like this.”
Well, we did. But whenever it happened, Fleury continually held down the fort, like when he made a Superman leap across the crease to rob Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele in Game 3 of the third round. Heading into the Stanley Cup final, he was everyone’s Conn Smythe Trophy favourite.
Some suggested he deserved the award regardless of whether Vegas won or not.
Where once Fleury was invincible, posting a .947 save percentage in the first three rounds of the playoffs, he now looks vulnerable. He has a .845 save percentage against Washington, having allowed 16 goals in four games. In a 6-2 loss in Game 4 on Monday, the Capitals scored six times on 23 shots.
None of them were necessarily ugly goals. But at the same time, it appears that a flaw has been exposed in his — and Vegas’ — game.
“I think Washington spotted something and have really been able to execute,” McLennan said. “If you go back to some of the saves Fleury made against Winnipeg or San Jose, he plays really aggressive. And Washington’s been able to create some deception and gone backdoor on him.
“It’s screens, it’s tips and it’s rebounds. And now they’re moving the puck east and west and getting him moving. No other team has been able to do that.”
Credit Washington’s shooters, particularly Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, who also made mincemeat out of Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in the conference final and Pittsburgh’s Murray in the second round. But for once in these playoffs, Fleury is finally losing the goalie battle.
While numbers plummet, Braden Holtby has maintained the exact same .919 save percentage that he had in the previous round against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s not only making the highlight-reel saves — he’s also got luck on his side. Shots that seem destined for the back of the net are now going off posts, his outstretched stick or sailing wide.
Fleury, meanwhile, cannot seem to buy a break.
“I feel like Fleury’s bringing his same game,” Rick St. Croix, the former goalie coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said in a telephone interview. “But it seems that Holtby’s zoned in one notch higher than Fleury. Some of the saves he’s making are out of this world. He’s reaching back with his stick and making the kind of saves that you don’t expect.”
On most goals, Fleury doesn’t seem to have a chance. As former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch joked, “he’s like Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away — on an island by himself.”
“When Washington gets a shot, it’s typically a really good scoring chance,” Hirsch, an analyst with Rogers Sportsnet, said in a phone interview. “The wheels have come off. It’s what we were all waiting for with Vegas — and not in a bad way — but this looks like an expansion team now. Give Vegas credit, because they made it right to the end before a team was able to expose them. But I think they’re getting exposed now.”
We saw that in Game 3, when Fleury made consecutive saves on John Carlson, Kuznetsov and then Carlson again, before Ovechkin finally scored on the fourth opportunity. And we saw it repeatedly in Game 4, when Washington sent the puck zigzagging across the ice to open players.
“We’ve got to cover the guy without the puck,” Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “There was a couple of passes by (Nicklas) Backstrom that were unbelievable passes. You’ve got to give your goalie a chance to make those saves. On those plays, there was no chance for him to make those saves.
“There’s too many guys staring at the puck carrier and we’re leaving the backside open too much … Marc will make the save on the guy shooting the puck. We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking away the passes.”
It sounds easy enough. But if Fleury cannot trust his defence to take away the passing option, then he is going to start cheating to take it away himself. When that happens, he could create even more holes.
“If he starts to try and change his game, you’re going to see him get with straight shots now,” McLennan said. “You can’t lay it as his feet.”
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