Canadian Press via AP
Sunday, June 20, 2021 | 10:30 p.m.
The Golden Knights raised more than a few eyebrows Sunday when word of who was starting in goal for Game 4 started to trickle out. It wasn’t Marc-Andre Fleury, the Vezina Trophy finalist who had played almost every game this postseason, but Robin Lehner, who had played just once these playoffs in an outing that didn’t exactly go well.
Benching a star goalie always has backfire potential, but Lehner showed why having another one waiting in the wings can be lethal. He turned in a spectacular 27-save performance allowing only one goal to keep the Golden Knights in the game until their offense finally arrived.
Nicolas Roy scored the overtime winner to send Vegas to a 2-1 victory over Montreal at Bell Centre, but Lehner was the reason they won.
“He’s been the No. 1 cheerleader on the team when he wasn’t playing, his positivity has rubbed off on us,” forward Max Pacioretty said. “For him to go in there tonight and be the player that we know he is, was huge for our team, and just so happy to see a guy like that get rewarded. He truly deserves it.”
It couldn’t have been easy for Lehner, considering not only the stakes of the game or how his last appearance went, but also just how little he’s played over the last month. Game 4 was his second outing in 41 days and his last one was 21 days ago, a 7-1 loss to the Avalanche in Game 1 of the second round.
Through that time, Lehner has been nothing but supportive of his team. He’s skated on the off days, fist-bumped Fleury when he comes off the ice and hilariously threw his ballcap on the ice for a pair of hat tricks by teammates earlier in the playoffs.
It may sound like lip service when most players talk about just wanting what’s best for the team, but Lehner’s actions have shown that he may really mean it.
“It doesn’t matter for me,” he said after Sunday’s victory. “Truly, in my heart, I don’t care if I’m on the bench or in the net, I’ll do my best for the team. I don’t care. I couldn’t care less. (Fleury) has been absolutely outstanding. He’s the reason why we’re here, along with a lot of the other guys. When you get a chance to come in and help, it’s great. You just do what you can for the team, no matter what position you’re in.”
Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said getting Fleury rest was the biggest reason for starting Lehner, and that Fleury’s misplay in the third period of Game 3 played no role in the decision. Before the game, Fleury had started more games than any goalie other than Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, and as DeBoer pointed out, Fleury is 10 years older than Vasilevskiy.
The Golden Knights plan on playing for a while longer, and with this series now extending to at least a Game 6 on Thursday, there’s no promise of an extended break before a potential Stanley Cup Final appearance.
The Golden Knights have the luxury of granting Fleury a break if they feel like he needs it considering the other guy is not just some backup.
“He was excellent and I knew he’d be good,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “Knowing (Lehner), knowing how hard he’s worked, knowing the goalie he is, the gamble to play him having not played a lot lately was no bigger than the gamble of playing a fatigued, in my mind, goalie with no rest on the horizon.”
Lehner made 27 saves in the victory, but two sequences stood out to keep the game within reach. The first came in the opening period when he slid across the crease to get a pad on an Eric Staal tip-in attempt, then gloved down Joel Armia’s rebound shot. He said the latter was so close that he worried it crossed the red line.
Two periods later, Montreal had a 1-0 lead off of a Paul Byron breakaway and the Vegas offense was stuck in neutral. The Golden Knights finished with 18 shots through regulation, tying a franchise-low for fewest shots through three periods in a playoff game, and zero high-danger scoring chances by Natural Stat Trick’s model, the first time that had ever happened.
Vegas needed Lehner to keep the game close because the offense wasn’t doing the trick, and he was up to the task.
The biggest save of the night came with 12:44 remaining in regulation, making sure Montreal’s dagger stayed in its sheath. Rookie sensation Cole Caufield worked a breakaway and could have ended the game, but Lehner denied a five-hole attempt.
It kept the game within a goal and allowed Brayden McNabb to tie it three minutes later.
“There were multiple times he made big saves, especially in the first,” McNabb said. “He gave us a chance and we were able to battle back.”
The Golden Knights made sure Lehner didn’t have to work in overtime, not allowing a Montreal shot and ending it 1:18 after the period started.
It added a storybook element that it was Roy, who was playing in his first postseason series in his home province of Quebec against the team he grew up watching. His parents, sister and in-laws were among the 3,500 in the crowd to see his first career playoff game-winning goal
“I always dreamed about scoring at the Bell Centre,” Roy said. “Doing it in overtime, in the series there in the semifinals, it’s even better.”
The Golden Knights evened the series, surviving one of the worst offensive performances in team history thanks to their goalie.
Lehner said he took his own bus to arrive to the game four hours early to scroll through Twitter and use the negative messages as pregame fuel. It sounds like a joke, but he just might be serious.
It’s an unorthodox pregame ritual, but no one’s complaining after it worked. Lehner took a victory lap in his postgame news conference, and no one could say he didn’t earn it.
“Me and (Fleury) have gotten really close this year supporting each other and we don’t care about the noise,” Lehner said. “It’s just great motivation for me. It was very enjoyable on Twitter today and thank you guys very much for giving me that motivation.”