Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 | 9 a.m.
The Golden Knights couldn’t have drawn up a better outcome to the goalie problem if they tried.
Robin Lehner has taken the mantle as the Vegas starting goalie in 12 of 16 playoff games, and is the projected goalie for Game 2 of the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars at 5 p.m. tonight.
But Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t been a traditional backup. He’s started just four games, but has shown the ability to jump in when needed, like when the Golden Knights needed a goalie for Game 1 after Lehner had played three games in four nights.
Lehner has a .918 save percentage and three shutouts. Fleury is at .910 with just one loss. Lehner may be getting the majority of starts these days, but both have proven themselves more than able when called upon.
“I knew we were going to be able to want to play both guys ad they’ve allowed us to do that by how professional they’ve been and their preparation and their willingness to jump in there and get the job done for us,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said.
John Klingberg’s goal in Game 1 for the Stars had an expected-goals value of 0.22, or a 22% chance of becoming a goal, according to Natural Stat Trick’s model. The Stars generated 51 shot attempts for the game with a cumulative expected-goals value of 2.3, so taking only into account the quality and quantity of their shots, the Stars were expected to score a little more than two goals.
That doesn’t take the goalie into consideration, and looking at that is a concrete way of knowing Fleury played well. Taking out Jamie Benn’s attempt at the empty net in the third period (0.54 expected-goals value) and Fleury faced about 1.8 expected goals but allowed just one actual goal.
That might not seem like a big difference, but 1.5 of those expected goals came in the first two periods. A combination of a reinvigorated Vegas attack and the Stars pulling off the gas to defend a lead in the third tilted the scales the other way, but Fleury’s play through 40 minutes at least gave his team a chance.
“That game is a lot more out of reach if it wasn’t for (Fleury) in the first two periods,” defenseman Nate Schmidt. “We didn’t play very well and that game could have been a lot worse than 1-0 after two periods.”
Overall this postseason, Lehner and Fleury have both been good if not spectacular relative to expected goals. Lehner has seen about 25 expected goals and allowed 24 actual goals. Fleury has seen 7.6 expected and given up nine, but much of that came from a poor round-robin showing against St. Louis. Take that game out and Fleury is on the plus-side in three games that have mattered: 6.2 expected vs. five allowed.
Allowing expected goals isn’t on the goalies, but the players in front of him, and that’s where Vegas has excelled. In 16 games this postseason, the Golden Knights are averaging 2.21 expected goals per 60 minutes, the fewest among teams that advanced beyond the qualifying round. They are doing this while firing off 3.36 the other way, best among teams in the same criteria.
“I think our defensive game has been good too, I think it’s been underrated, and it’s helped,” DeBoer said. “But I think both those guys have definitely been the backbone of what we’re doing here.”
Granted, the Golden Knights overwhelmed the Blackhawks in the first round and the Canucks in the second, padding their stats a bit while teams like the Stars faced a tougher road to the conference final. Vegas won’t dominate possession against Dallas the way it did against its other opponents, but this was also one of the best teams in the regular season, too. The Golden Knights are built to help their goalie out, no matter who it is.
“Obviously as defensemen you want to eliminate high chances and take away chances against,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “We didn’t give up a whole lot (in Game 1), but I think we can still be better in some areas.”
The Lehner-Fleury debate has dominated the postseason conversation, but for the most part it hasn’t mattered. Both have received great support from the team in front of them, and both have outplayed expectations in the elimination rounds.
Lehner appears to be the starter, and figures to start Game 2 against the Stars. DeBoer though has shown he’s not afraid to go with Fleury when he feels that’s right. Either one is getting the job done.
Series: Stars lead 1-0
TV: NBC Sports Network (DirecTV 220, Cox 38, CenturyLink 640)
Radio: Fox Sports 1340 AM and 98.9 FM
Betting line: Golden Knights minus-155, Stars plus-135; over/under: 5.5 (minus-110, minus-110)
Golden Knights (11-5, Western Conference No. 1 seed)
Previous round: Defeated Vancouver in second round, 4-3
Coach: Peter DeBoer (first season)
Points leaders: Shea Theodore (16)
Goals leaders: Alex Tuch (8)
Assists leaders: Shea Theodore (10)
Expected goalie: Robin Lehner (1.99 GAA, .918 save percentage)
Stars (10-7, Western Conference No. 3 seed)
Previous round: Defeated Colorado in second round, 4-3
Coach: Rick Bowness (first season)
Points leaders: Miro Heiskanen (21)
Goals leader: Denis Gurianov, Joe Pavelski (8)
Assists leaders: Miro Heiskanen (16)
Expected goalie: Anton Khudobin (2.74 GAA, .914 save percentage)
Golden Knights projected lineup
Max Pacioretty—Chandler Stephenson—Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault—William Karlsson—Reilly Smith
Alex Tuch—Paul Stastny—Nicolas Roy
William Carrier—Nick Cousins—Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb—Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez—Shea Theodore
Nick Holden—Zach Whitecloud
Robin Lehner, Marc-Andre Fleury