In the NHL, the margin for error during the Stanley Cup playoffs is nonexistent. One mistake, one boneheaded play, one lapse in judgment can wind up being the difference not just between a game won or lost, but an entire series won or lost. Vegas Golden Knights goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury is finding this out that hard way. And it's left many to ponder a difficult yet important question: Should the Vegas Golden Knights have benched Marc-Andre Fleury?
Marc-Andre Fleury's Future In Question
This seems like a loaded topic on its face. But that's only true if there's no real momentum behind it.
And as it turns out, there is some validity to the discussion—fueled largely by the Golden Knights' reaction to a Game 3 letdown to the Montreal Canadiens.
What Did Marc-Andre Fleury Do Wrong?
In the final two minutes of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup semifinals, the Golden Knights were on the verge of a 2-1 victory and subsequent 2-1 series lead. But then it all went wrong.
Following a Canadiens dump-in, Fleury tried playing the puck behind his own net. However, when attempting to collect it, he accidentally sent the puck into his skates. It then bounced off the blade and slid into the open ice, where Canadiens right wing Josh Anderson was positioned. He promptly fired the puck into the empty net, with Fleury still behind the posts.
But wait, it gets worse.
When the game reached overtime, it was Anderson who again scored, giving Montreal the victory and a 2-1 series lead no one saw coming.
Impact of Marc-Andre Fleury's Mistake
Fleury's gaffe behind the net didn't technically cost the Golden Knights the game. Plenty of other hockey was played. Vegas had time to score another goal.
Still, it was Fleury who reopened the door for the Canadiens in a way few predicted would happen. Without his attempt to play the puck behind his own net, there is no tying goal and, thus, no opportunity for Anderson to score the game-winning goal in overtime.
Falling behind 2-1 in a best-of-seven set was problematic for obvious reasons. Vegas is tasked with winning three out of four games now, a ridiculously tough feat. Even the top online sportsbooks agree.
The folks over at BetOnline initially had Vegas as a -340 to win this series and reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The Golden Knights are now -158. That still gives them the overall edge, but it's a stark decrease—especially when major changes to their rotation may be on the horizon.
Did Vegas Do The Right Thing By Benching Marc-Andre Fleury?
Most would probably estimate that Fleury's botched play in Game 3 shouldn't have cost him his starting gig. He's been around the NHL for nearly two-decade and is still playing near the peak of his powers. He finished the regular season with a 92.8 save percentage, the fourth-best mark among all goalies who appeared in at least 10 games.
Fleury's performance has generally held firm during the postseason, too. After Game 3's problematic stretch, he's still sending back 92.1 percent of the shots that come his way. Pulling him from between the posts feels like an overreaction to an unflattering couple of moments.
And yet, the Knights did not think so. Twenty-nine-year-old backup goalie Robin Lehner was recently seen getting reps with the Knights' starting lines:
Robin Lehner is expected to start tonight for the Golden Knights. https://t.co/KpDoo0KAGm
— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) June 20, 2021
Sure enough, when the Knights skated onto the ice in Game 4, it was Lehner who was leading them.
The magnitude of this switch cannot be overstated. NHL teams use goalkeepers by committee all the time. Backups will see the entire games' worth of work to provide them with a break. Some squads even have a split workload, wherein they rotate starters depending on the matchup.
In the playoffs, though, teams generally stick with one goalie, barring injury. And rarely do they make a change so late in the postseason when they can smell the Stanley Cup Final.
To Lehner's credit, he is saving 91.3 percent of the shots fired at him. At the same time, he has just 17 total playoff games worth of experience under his belt. And his save percentage in those situations is a noticeably low 81.1 percent. All of which is to say, Vegas is taking a real risk by making this change now.
Of course, one start does not have to hint at a permanent shift. The Golden Knights might just be trying to send Fleury a message. Or they might be just be looking to change it up for a game or two, or maybe even just the rest of the semifinals.
From where we're standing, however, this seems like an unnecessary adjustment. Fleury let up six goals over his last two games, but two of those scores never happen if not for his momentary lapse. We get it was costly. We get Vegas can't afford that to happen. And we get that a lack of reaction can be construed as stubbornness or complacency.
We also get that Fleury is, in a vacuum, one of the best goalkeepers in a league. Pivoting away from him now is high-risk, minimal-reward. And after the way Game 5 unfolded, we'd strongly recommend going back to him.
Check out this list of the best online sportsbooks so you can decide which one to use for all your NHL betting: