We’ve been over this before both pre- and post-Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, but for the opening contest of the last series of the season to feature a combined 10 goals between the two teams is a rarity. In fact, the Vegas-Washington 10-goal affair marked just the eighth time in nearly 80 years that Game 1 of the final featured a goal total in the double digits. And given no Game 2 in the past 20 years has cracked the 10-goal plateau, it feels safe to say that we won’t be seeing a similar scoreline once the second game of the final is complete.
Of course, to expect that to happen, one would also have to expect that both goaltenders, the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury and Capitals’ Braden Holtby, will play much, much better in the second outing of the best-of-seven. In Game 1, neither was as sharp as expected, with Holtby having difficulty controlling rebounds from start to finish, and Fleury making a gaffe on Tom Wilson’s third period temporary go-ahead goal. If we were to lay down a bet, though — and what better city to do it than Vegas? — it feels safe to propose we’re going to see much better from both keepers Wednesday night.
Maybe that’s not a stretch to suggest when it comes to Fleury, especially. After all, as Ken Campbell wrote entering the Stanley Cup final, all signs point to Fleury winning the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP, and he could very well hoist the trophy regardless of the end result of the series. He has been the backbone of the Golden Knights’ Cup run, and came into the Stanley Cup final with a .947 save percentage, a mark high enough that he had potential to finish the playoffs with the best SP of any Cup finalist netminder in the modern era. Better yet, though, we’ve seen what Fleury can do after having a tough outing to start a series.
In Game 1 of the Western Conference final against the Winnipeg Jets, Fleury had his worst game of the post-season. In the first eight minutes of the opening frame, he had been shelled for three goals against, including a tally just 65 seconds after puck drop that set the tone for his tough night. But the four goals against on 26 shots — or .846 SP — was the last time Fleury would be beat with any consistency in the series. Over the final four games of Vegas’ five-game series victory, Fleury posted a stellar .956 SP and allowed only six goals against.
Bouncing back in such a way has been a trend for Fleury all playoffs and beyond, too. Matter of fact, if we go all the way back to the start of the campaign, Fleury has been exceptional after tough starts. Throughout the season, the Golden Knights netminder has had 14 starts — 13 if you exclude the one in his return from a concussion — following a game in which he posted a .900 SP or lower. And in those 14 games, Fleury has a shining 10-3-1 record. But better yet is that Fleury has been a wall after tough outings. He has allowed an average of 1.79 goals against in those contests while boasting a fantastic .945 SP. That’s bolstered by the four shutouts he’s pitched in those bounce back games.
With that in mind, it seems more likely than not that Washington, which has had the post-season’s most potent offense, is going to its top stars to be firing with precision if they have any hope of beating Fleury another four times in Game 2. However, don’t take Fleury’s bounce back numbers to mean Game 2 will be a walk for the Golden Knights, because even though Holtby had one of the tougher campaigns of his career in the Capitals’ crease, he’s been no slouch when it comes to getting his groove back after a bad game.
Like Fleury, some of the best games of Holtby’s season came immediately following a tough outing. The only problem is that Holtby’s bad nights happened more frequently than they have in the past. During the season and into the playoffs, Holtby has had 26 games in which he’s posted a sub-.900 SP, including six games in which he’s actually fallen below the .800 SP mark. In his next start out, though, Holtby has been similarly solid for the Capitals. His average goals against in those games is higher than Fleury’s at 2.38, but, all things considered, Holtby isn’t too far off with a .920 SP and one shutout.
The biggest concern for Washington, though, might be that Holtby isn’t too far removed from his last string of bad contests. After the Capitals took a commanding 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference final, the Tampa Bay Lightning solved repeatedly over the next three games, scoring 10 goals on 64 shots as Holtby posted a .844 SP and the series began to seemingly slip away. But Holtby almost singlehandedly turned the series around with excellent performances in Game 6 and 7. He stopped every single of the 24 shots he faced in Game 6 and continued his shutout streak with 29 stops on 29 shots in the series- and conference final-deciding Game 7.
It’s also worth considering that Holtby has a tendency to raise his game in the post-season and he’s never really shrunk on the NHL’s big stage. Of goaltenders to play at least 50 playoff games in their career, Holtby ranks second all-time with a .929 SP, only slightly behind Tim Thomas’ .933 mark. But when you shift the parameters to goaltenders who have played in the 75-game range — Holtby has now played 78 in his career — the Capitals’ No. 1 netminder is in a class of his own. His .929 SP ranks ahead of the likes of Hall of Famers such as Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante, Ed Belfour and Patrick Roy, and Holtby also bests crease contemporaries Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford and, yes, Fleury.
So, will we see an encore in Vegas, another double-digit performance from two offensive units energized by playing for the sport’s greatest prize? Hey, anything is possible. The smart money, though, says we shouldn’t expect Fleury or Holtby to give up goals anywhere near as easy in Game 2.
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