Fleury, Lehner and the Golden Knights’ big Game 5 decision

[UPDATE: Fleury was the first goalie off during Tuesday’s morning skate and is the projected Game 5 starter.]

When it comes to his goaltending decisions Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer has not been afraid to make a bold, and maybe even controversial, move.

Over the past two years he has been rotating Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner in and out of the lineup at different (and unexpected) times. He rolled with Lehner as his starter a year ago, and has twice this postseason (including Sunday’s Game 4 win) sent Fleury to the bench in favor of Lehner even though the former has had a very strong postseason.

It creates quite a storyline going into a pivotal Game 5 on Tuesday when their semifinal series against the Montreal Canadiens shifts back to Vegas.

Does DeBoer stick with Lehner after a potential season-saving performance on Sunday?

Or does he go back to a rested Fleury who has hopefully put his Game 3 gaffe behind him?

Let’s dig into this situation a little bit with a few thoughts.

1. There is a strong argument in favor of DeBoer’s changes

When a team has a franchise goalie they usually stick with that goalie in the playoffs until they absolutely have to make a change. Seeing teams voluntarily using multiple goalies in a playoff is strange, mostly because we almost never see it.

But most teams don’t have two goalies this good. Most teams are not paying their two goalies a combined $12 million per season.

If you have two starting caliber goalies, and if you are going to pay them that much money and eat up that much of your allotted salary cap space, you might as well figure out a way to get something out of both of them. Especially when one of the goalies (Fleury) is 36 years old and has a lot of wear on his tires.

The NHL regular season is a grind for goalies, and a bunch of deep playoff runs only adds to that. The fatigue factor is real, and keeping your goalie fresh can be helpful. If giving Fleury the occasional night off in the middle of a playoff run helps keep him rest, and you have another goalie that is capable of winning you those games, why not take advantage of that? It is an edge Vegas has over most teams in the playoffs.

But…

2. This does keep happening to Marc-Andre Fleury..

And by this, I mean his coach going away from him in a big moment. It has happened with three different coaches on two different teams (Pittsburgh and Vegas) on multiple occasions.

In 2012-13 Dan Bylsma turned his net over to Tomas Vokoun in Game 5 of the the First Round. Outside of one relief appearance later in the playoffs, Fleury never saw the ice again as the Penguins went to the Eastern Conference Final.

In 2015-16 both Fleury and Matt Murray opened the playoffs injured for the Penguins. Murray was the first goalie back, got the starts, and held that starting job until Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay when Fleury was re-inserted into the lineup. He did not play well, gave up two late goals in a pivotal game, and never saw the ice again as Murray backstopped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup.

In 2016-17 Fleury opened the playoffs for the Penguins as the starter (Murray was injured) and helped carry them through the first two rounds. He stumbled early in the Conference Finals against Ottawa, was replaced by Murray in Game 4, and then never saw the ice again as Murray backstopped the Penguins to another Stanley Cup.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2019-20, and after two playoff runs where he was the unquestioned starter in Vegas (including a Stanley Cup Final run), Fleury opened the playoffs on the bench in favor of Lehner who had played just three regular season games for the Golden Knights. Other than being used sparingly to give Lehner a break in some back-to-back situations in the bubble, Fleury was clearly the back up.

Then on Sunday, with the Golden Knights facing a 2-1 series deficit in the semifinal, DeBoer went back to Lehner in a massive spot.

You can analyze each individual situation all you want and look for reasons why each of those decisions was made. Maybe in a vacuum each of them makes sense on its own. But it keeps happening.

Fleury is fascinating case because he is the goalie that you want to see when you look at him, both good and bad.

His resume is Hall of Fame worthy, and he will almost certainly eventually find his way there. He is probably going to finish his career second on the All-Time wins list (he is already third, and Patrick Roy in the second spot is within reach), probably in the top-10 in shutouts, and he has a championship legacy. He won a Stanley Cup as a starter in 2009. He started to other Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2018 and made significant contributions to two other Stanley Cup winning teams (2015 and 2016). There is a good chance he could find himself playing in another Stanley Cup Final, and maybe add another ring to his collection this season.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 schedule, TV info]

But he has always been a lightning rod for criticism throughout his career for his postseason struggles and occasional blooper.

In the end he is a better player than his harshest critics will have you believe and maybe not as great as his biggest supporters will scream.

He may have never been the best goalie in the league, but he has been a very good, extremely durable goalie for more than 15 years. There is a lot to be said for that.

But you still can not ignore the fact that three very successful coaches, with five different Stanley Cup Final appearances between them, have at different times made the decision to start other goalies on the roster in big moments.

It is a very unique situation for a goalie with this sort of resume.

It also leads to this.

3. DeBoer’s decision for Game 5 will be telling

If DeBoer goes back to Fleury in Game 5 then it pretty clearly states that Fleury is his guy for this postseason and the Game 4 decision (and the Game 1 decision in the Second Round) were simply strategic changes to rest his starter and keep him fresh.

But if he goes back to Lehner after Fleury’s Game 3 mishap and Lehner’s strong Game 4 performance, then it is going to look an awful lot like a coach that was just waiting for an opportunity to turn to his preferred goalie.

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (Series tied 2-2) – series livestream link

Game 1: Golden Knights 4, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Game 4: Golden Knights 2, Canadiens 1 (OT)

Game 5: Tues. June 22: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 6: Thurs. June 24: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sat. June 26: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 8 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)

*if necessary

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