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Robin Lehner or Marc-Andre Fleury? Inside the Golden Knights' delicate goalie situation

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Published in Hockey
Thursday, 13 August 2020 20:16

For Robin Lehner, the situation would have been comical had it not been so maddening. The blade popped off the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender's skate -- twice -- against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series on Tuesday night. At one point, he was scrambling on the ice to find his footing as the Blackhawks plunked a shot off the far post. Hockey can be a graceful game. But not in this moment.

"I was pretty frustrated. It's the first time that's ever happened to me. I've had old skates for a while," he said. "You have to battle through it. It's kind of tough for a goalie with one skate."

Vegas coach Peter DeBoer chuckled about the scene after the 4-1 win, having never seen a goalie "blow a tire" like that before. "I just found out after the game that those skates are four years old. He's gotta take some responsibility for that. I think between our sponsorship agreement and our ownership he's had multiple opportunities to change out his skates," he said. "For whatever reason, he fell in love with his pair. Sounds like they just wore out."

In other words, sometimes you have to replace something that you adore if you believe it's malfunctioning.

Lehner has taken the crease to start the playoffs from Marc-Andre Fleury, an original Golden Knight. Fleury is the most popular player in the franchise's young history, both for his success and his charm. For example, when Fleury signed a contract extension that runs through 2022, he was called the face of the franchise. "I wish I had a better face," he quipped.

But his third season in Vegas was demonstrably his weakest. After hitting double digits in goals saved above average in his first two seasons, Fleury was only a plus-6.1 this season. He was top five for the Vezina Trophy in the past two seasons; in 2019-20, he had a .905 save percentage in 49 games, his lowest since 2009-10 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Off the ice, Fleury struggled as well. He was grief-stricken when his father died in November. "It's tough. I'm doing my best. Hopefully, time will make me better," he told The Athletic in January.

The Golden Knights were expected to improve their goaltending at the trade deadline, as Fleury's backups were all sub-.900 in save percentage this season. But they shocked the NHL when they acquired Lehner, who had started 31 games for the Blackhawks this season.

"Chicago had two No. 1 goaltenders," Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon said. "We liked the makeup of our team. We did not feel like we had enough support behind Marc-Andre. That was the motivation for the deal."

But it was impossible not to view the trade beyond the backup position. Was it an attempt to shake Fleury out of his season-long malaise? Was it an insurance policy they could cash in for the postseason if Fleury remained ordinary and Lehner outplayed him?

The Golden Knights' dressing room is filled with players who arrived in Vegas at the same time as Fleury, and who watched him back-stop them to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in 2018. Did the Lehner trade rock that boat at all?

"Robin's been an established goalie in our league for quite some time. Any time you bring in somebody that's going to add depth to your group, add competition, it's going to give a boost to your team, right?" said Nate Schmidt, Fleury's teammate since Day 1 of the franchise. "You understand that you're coming [to the playoffs] for one thing, and he's going to help you win that."

Lehner didn't see it as him supplanting Fleury. "I don't think like that. Marc's a world-class goaltender. Been one of the best in the league for a very long time," Lehner said. "Every game I get to play, I'll do my best. Whenever they need me, they need me."

McCrimmon said there's a "good relationship" between Fleury and Lehner. "They're both here for the same reason, which is to help us win. It's a luxury to have two goalies of that caliber. We just felt that the risks of not moving ahead were greater than we were ready to assume," he said.

Lehner started two games of round-robin play and performed well. Fleury gave up four goals on 17 shots in his start. DeBoer announced on the morning of Game 1 that Lehner would get the nod against his old teammates from Chicago.

"A tough decision when you have two quality starting goaltenders," he said. "The best way I can explain it is that it wasn't what 'Flower' didn't do. It's what Robin has done since they got here. I think he's 5-0 in the numbers. But not just the numbers. I think he got here, came into our camp after the pause and was lights out in all of our scrimmages. This isn't a case of one guy not getting the job done. This is just one guy just being fantastic."

For Lehner, who made 19 saves in the win, Game 1 was a little surreal. The Blackhawks signed him to a one-year contract after the New York Islanders decided to move on from him after 2018-19. Despite making his bid to remain with Chicago with a strong season, they traded him. What wasn't known at the time for the Blackhawks was that COVID-19 would pause the season and that they'd be drafted into a 24-team postseason tournament.

"No one could have foreseen that we would be playing in a hub in Edmonton, Alberta," McCrimmon said.

After eliminating the Edmonton Oilers in the qualification round, the Blackhawks were suddenly faced with their former netminder across the ice.

"He didn't take very long to have an impact on our locker room. He's a big personality. The guys liked him a lot and he played great hockey for us," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "He had a lot of influence on everyone, especially our leadership group, and won a lot of games for us. As this point, we know what he's good at. We know we need to make his job a lot tougher."

Lehner said he has kept in touch with his former teammates in Chicago since the trade. "I made some good friends there. Great group of guys in the locker room," he said. "But it's playoffs now. No contact now. On the ice, I'm focused on my game. There's no talk."

There are benefits for both the Blackhawks and their former goalie in having history. "I'm foremost a 'reading' goalie. I know a lot of their tendencies. I know what they're trying to do on their power play, etc.," Lehner said. "But it becomes a little bit of a reverse psychology. I know that they know, and that they are going to try and mix it up for me. On all their in-tight chances, they tried to go five-hole. I kinda anticipated that before the game. Next game, they're probably going to try something else."

In other words, they'll adapt, which is what teams do this time of the season. That goes for shots on goal or bigger decisions, such as deciding who should stop them.

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