Goaltending is hockey’s great equalizer, and it can also totally screw with our interpretation of what is happening on the ice in any given game, series, or season.
It can make us think mediocre teams are better than they actually are.
It can make us think great teams are worse than they actually are. It can make us think we are seeing something that we are not actually seeing.
Sometimes your great defensive team that has bought into sacrificing and selling out to play a stifling brand of hockey is just a bad hockey team that gets stuck in its own zone all night and has a great goalie. Sometimes your team of underachievers that never have what it takes to win when it counts and needs some sort of a culture change is just a team that is getting sub-par goaltending.
This, of course, is not always the case. Sometimes there really are great defensive teams independent of their goalie. Sometimes teams do need to make changes beyond the goalie to break through the wall and win. But goaltending messes with us a lot.
This brings us to the story of Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights.
Through the first three rounds of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs Fleury had seemingly built a brick wall around his net and was in the process of authoring one of the great postseason goaltending performances in NHL history. He was not only the leader in the Conn Smythe Trophy race, but he seemed to have a pretty strong case to pull a Jean-Sebastian Giguere and potentially win the award even if his team lost. He was playing the best hockey of his life and was one of the driving forces behind one of the most stunning stories in professional sports history.
All of it is still true. All of those wins in the first three rounds still happened. He still made all of those saves. It all counts. No matter what happens the rest of the way in this series it is going to be a postseason run for the ages.
Eventually, though, there was going to come a point where he was no longer going to stop 95 percent of the shots he faced because no goalie is ever going to maintain that level of play all the time. The regression monster eventually comes for every hot streak and it can be ruthless depending on the timing. The only question for Fleury was whether or not it was going to come in the Stanley Cup Final or if it was going to come next season.
Through the first four games against the Washington Capitals it has become strikingly obvious that it has come now. The numbers in this series for Fleury are not kind. Through the first four games Fleury has already allowed 16 goals on 103 shots for a save percentage of only .845, a dramatic fall from the .946 mark he had in the first three rounds.
There are a couple of ways to look at this.
On one hand, you could look at it as NHL seasons being full of hot streaks and cold streaks and Fleury, after playing a white-hot level for the first 15 games of the playoffs, was due to hit a valley and has simply not played as well.
Or you could look at it as the team around him has played significantly worse against a great team and has left him out on an island on far too many occasions, failing to give him anywhere near enough help.
The latter point seems to be the popular approach here. Following Vegas’ Game 4 loss in Washington, a night where Fleury gave up six goals in what the Golden Knights thought was a pretty strong showing on their part, coach Gerard Gallant was asked if he ever gave any consideration to lifting Fleury.
“No. Never,” said Gallant. “I think at least five of the six goals they had wide open nets, nothing he could do.”
On Tuesday he reenforced his stance that the players around his goalie need to be better
“Play better defensively,” said Gallant. “There’s too many guys staring at the puck carrier, and we’re leaving the back side open too much. Make sure we’re paying attention to the guys behind the puck and away from the puck. Marc will make the save on the guy shooting the puck. We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking away the passes.”
This is where things get tricky with Fleury and the Golden Knights.
Gallant is correct that his team needs to be better in a lot of ways. There have been goals in this series where Fleury did not have much of a chance. The team around its goalie does need to play better, and not just in the defensive zone, but also in the offensive zone where turnovers have been plentiful and sustained pressure has been insufficient.
But what if — and this might be a controversial take given the way this story is unfolding — the Golden Knights are playing largely the same way defensively that they did through the first three rounds and the only difference is Fleury is no longer able to consistently bail them out with mind-bending saves?
Below is a series-by-series breakdown of what Fleury has faced this postseason, including total shots on goal and “high-danger chances,” and how many of those shots he has stopped.
(These are all situations numbers — even strength, power play, penalty kill — and the high-danger data is via Natural Stat Trick.)
Notice the column on the far right? Vegas is actually giving up fewer high-danger chances in the Final than it did in the previous two rounds against the San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets. Three of their 10 best individual games this postseason in terms of suppressing those sorts of chances have come in this series.
If there is a point to be made here it is this: Vegas has not played that great defensively this postseason.
How many times throughout the first three rounds (well, maybe only the past two rounds because the Los Angeles Kings were just totally incompetent and embarrassing offensively) did we talk about how Fleury made some sort of unconscious save that defied all reason and logic? How many times did the Jets talk about Fleury stealing games against them? Just because Fleury was making those saves does not mean those chances against were not happening — because they were. Overall this postseason Vegas has given up an average of 11.91 high-danger chances (all situations) per game. That is the third-worst mark of all the teams in these playoffs. That is bad.
For three rounds, Fleury stopped an obscene number of those chances.
Now he is not.
This does not necessarily mean that it is Fleury’s fault. It is more a commentary on just how great he was through the first three rounds that the Golden Knights were able to overcome it.
So why has it changed in this series?
You could look at it as an inevitability that he was due for some sort of a regression and that if you give NHL shooters enough chances they are eventually going to make you pay.
It also might have something to do with the team he and the Golden Knights are playing. As I pointed out before the start of the series the Capitals are quite familiar with Fleury given his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in their two previous postseason matchups they had no issues scoring goals against him. They know him. They know the way he plays. The Capitals not only have some of the best high-end talent that the Fleury and the Golden Knights have faced this season, but they are capable of playing a brand of hockey that can take advantage of Fleury’s style of play.
Gallant pointed out how many “empty net” goals the Capitals have been able to score and his team’s need to take away passing lanes because they are giving up a lot of backdoor play type goals. Fleury is an aggressive goalie. He challenges shooters and relies significantly on his athleticism to recover and make saves. That style of play and athleticism can result in highlight reel saves that blow your mind. It can also leave him vulnerable to the type of goals the Capitals have been scoring in bunches in this series where it looks like he has no chance.
In the end there can be more than one true development here.
Yes, the Golden Knights do need to be better defensively in front of Fleury because they have not always been great defensively in this series or in these playoffs.
Yes, it is also true that Fleury is not playing quite as great as he did earlier in the playoffs.
This, again, does not mean he is to blame for the deficit they are facing. It just means he played at a ridiculous level for 15 games that probably helped push his team further in the playoffs than it otherwise would have gone with a different goaltending performance.
If they are going to comeback in this series they are probably going to have to hope he gets back to that level for three more games.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.