sports 4 days ago

NHL playoffs 2018: Marc-Andre Fleury enjoys playoff reputation revival for Golden Knights

Sporting News — ahirsh3@gmail.com (Andrew Hirsh)

As the Golden Knights prepared for their inaugural campaign, there were some legitimate reasons to believe this team was capable of being relevant, if unspectacular, from the get-go. For starters, just about everyone had a chip on his shoulder — including the head coach. They assembled nearly two teams worth of veteran defensemen to work with, as well, and gifted forwards like James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith gave Vegas more raw offensive talent than any previous expansion team in memory.

Above all, though, glass-half-full types pointed to the guy in net as reason to be excited. In the eyes of many, Marc-Andre Fleury needed to put the Golden Knights on his back for them approach competitiveness.

And all he did was have the best regular season of his career. 

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At 34 years old, Fleury’s regular-season save percentage (.927) and GSAA (20.77) were the highest he has ever registered; only once has he finished with more than the 31 quality starts he earned in 2017-18.  

The playoffs are a different animal, however. Despite Vegas’ wild success from October through April, hardly anyone would have been shocked if the Golden Knights bowed out early. Because even though William Karlsson and a band of others enjoyed breakout seasons, Vegas — which is deep but not extraordinary so — lacks the high-end talent of most genuine contenders. 

A cursory glance at the teams that have taken home the Cup in the modern era will make one thing clear: It is remarkably difficult to win it all without multiple superstars on your side. The Golden Knights, impressive as they are, don’t have anyone in tow befitting that label. 

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Without question, the best way to mitigate a lack of Hall of Fame-caliber skaters this time of year is to receive elite goaltending. It would have been understandable if that notion made Vegas fans nervous last month.

Yes, Fleury was rock-solid en route to a division title and played a significant role in bringing three Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh, but his playoff history is checkered, to say the least. And while some may harp a little too much on the Flower's penchant for wilting under the spotlight, his reputation for falling apart in the spring is not entirely unfair. 

Nevertheless, the Fleury we are watching now is better than the Fleury who was benched in favor of Matt Murray during the Penguins’ last two championship expeditions. And he is a far cry from the Fleury whose save percentage rested below .900 in four consecutive postseasons. 

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The Fleury we are watching is, at present, performing better than anyone else in the NHL.

Through two rounds, Fleury has pitched a shutout in four of 10 appearances, allowing a mere 1.53 goals per game and recorded a 12.99 GSAA — all of which are league-best among starting netminders in the playoffs. 

Moreover, his .951 save percentage isn’t just the highest mark this postseason. It is the highest any goalie has earned in a playoff run in NHL history among those to make at least 10 appearances.

These numbers have made him the Conn Smythe favorite so far. It’d be hard to make a convincing argument for anyone else at this juncture. 

To gain a better idea of how Fleury has performed, we can take a look at his expected save percentage at Corsica, which, in addition to shot location, takes into account factors such as shots off rebounds, odd-man rushes and whether a forward or a defenseman is firing the puck. 

Fleury’s xSV% thus far in the playoffs is .926, meaning he is performing significantly better than an average goalie would in his position. The difference in his xSV% and actual SV% (delta SV%) is, unsurprisingly, the highest in the league during these playoffs. 

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This is due in large part to the way Fleury has responded to scoring opportunities right in front of him. While he hasn’t faced an overwhelming amount of premier chances through two rounds, he has stood tall during those precarious moments. Against Los Angeles and San Jose, Fleury only allowed seven goals on 50 high-danger shots, good for a .860 SV%. Only nine goalies since 2007-08 have had a higher overall HDSV% in a postseason run, per Corsica. 

Fleury has been especially clutch at even strength. During five-on-five action, he has stopped 30 of 32 HD shots — a stunning .938 save percentage. That, too, is an NHL-best. 

It may appear as if Vegas has mostly cruised to the Western Conference finals, but that is largely due to Fleury’s brilliance. In the playoffs, the Golden Knights are surrendering 34.4 shots against per game, the worst rate by any team that made it past the opening round, up from 30.7 in the regular season. And they are scoring only 2.90 goals per game, also the worst rate of any team that advance beyond the initial round, down from 3.27 during the regular season.

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Vegas may be forechecking well, using its speed to gain an edge and outworking opponents, but its skaters aren’t producing quite as much as they did for most of the last eight months. Without Fleury standing on his head, it’s likely the final words of this Cinderella story would have already been written.

Matters should only get more difficult from here. The Golden Knights will have their hands full in the WCF against the surging Jets, who are fresh off a Game 7 victory in Nashville. Only the Lightning scored more goals than the Jets during the regular season; in the playoffs, no one has lit the lamp at a higher clip than Winnipeg. The Capitals are tied with the Jets in that category, and the Lightning, who led the league in goals during the regular season, boast a lot of firepower, as well. 

So no matter how everything shakes out, the Knights will have to win two best-of-seven series against two outstanding offenses to hoist the Cup.

Indeed, for Vegas to earn the most improbable championship any of us have ever seen, it will almost certainly need its goalie to remain white-hot. Thankfully for the Golden Knights, there is not a single player left in contention who understands what it takes to go all the way more than Fleury. And there is no one performing at a higher level.

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