As the Vegas Golden Knights return home Tuesday trailing the Stanley Cup final 3-1 and on the brink of the clock striking midnight on their Cinderella season, there will be a lot of finger-pointing as to how a team that was able to battle its way through established clubs such as the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Stanley Cup favorite Winnipeg Jets is coming up short when it matters most.
Some will lay the blame at the feet of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson, the Golden Knights’ high-flying first line that has been rendered near obsolete by the Washington Capitals’ defense. Others will point to the lack of depth in the Vegas lineup, which has left the Golden Knights without much offensive production when the top-six isn’t on the ice. And there will be those who inevitably point their finger at goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
The fact that Vegas likely wouldn’t even be in the final without Fleury aside, one can understand why it’d be easy to place the blame on the Golden Knights goaltender. After all, in a series where Vegas has been outscored 16-11, a save here or there could be the difference between a two-game deficit and a series that’s tied going home. It would also be easy to place the blame on Fleury given he’s having the worst stretch of his season at the most inopportune time. In no game this series has Fleury’s save percentage exceeded .900, and he followed his opening game .857 SP with twin .885 SP performances and an unfortunate .739 SP in a crucial Game 4.
But the truth of the matter is the numbers don’t tell the entire story when it comes to Fleury, and Vegas coach Gerard Gallant knows that to blame Fleury would be a fool’s errand. “A lot of those goals were east-west passes. They made some real good passes,” said Gallant to the media ahead of Tuesday’s travel day. “A couple on the power play were back door plays. We’ve got to cover the guy without the puck. They basically had passes…like I said, there was a couple of passes by (Nicklas) Backstrom that were unbelievable passes. You’ve got to give your goalie a chance to make those saves. On those plays, there was no chance for him to make those saves.”
That’s about as an accurate an assessment of the goals Fleury allowed in Game 4 as there could be, too, because there really was no chance for the Golden Knights keeper to make a high-percentage play on at least four, maybe five, of the six goals he allowed Monday evening. Go back through the footage and pick out the pucks Fleury should have stopped. Maybe he stops Brett Connolly’s late power play goal, a tally that came with the game already out of reach. Or maybe Fleury gets a piece of T.J. Oshie’s game-opening marker on the man advantage, but Oshie was uncovered skating into a rebound from the backside.
Fleury can almost certainly be absolved of the other goals, however. Tom Wilson’s tally came as he was wide-open in the slot, and few NHLers will miss from there. Devante Smith-Pelly corralled a laser backdoor pass with his skates before burying one past an outstretched Fleury late in the first. John Carlson’s blast, the second of the Capitals’ three power play goal, was the kind of chance Washington’s special-teams unit is built around. And Michal Kempny’s one-timer came with Fleury having to move east-to-west, post-to-post, to even have a prayer of stopping. He was dead to rights the moment Backstrom found the passing lane.
The bigger concern, though, is that Vegas’ Game 4 breakdowns that allowed Washington these high-quality chances haven’t been contained to Monday’s outing alone. This has been a running theme the entire series, and you’d be hard-pressed to find more than three or four goals for which one could confidently say Fleury is to blame. Connolly’s in Game 4 was a so-so goal, one Fleury could have had. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Game 3 goal slipped under Fleury’s blocker, but it was a picture-perfect shot on a 3-on-1 rush. Then there’s Wilson’s Game 1 goal, one Fleury accidentally dragged into his own net as the puck got lost at his feet. That’s three goals, and while you could maybe nitpick and argue a fourth of fifth should be thrown in, you get the idea.
Every other Capitals goal has come on broken coverages, deflections or scrambled plays, and four of the 16 pucks that have eluded Fleury have done so on the power play. The blame for those doesn’t fall on Fleury as much as it does the defensive coverage around him. Because while Washington may not be producing more shots, attempts, scoring chances or high-danger chances on a per-60-minute basis than either team Vegas has played in the past two rounds, the Capitals seem to be getting more pucks across the ice and more looks from wide-open skaters who have made their way into the prime scoring areas. Put another way, it’s the east-west passes, the same ones Gallant spoke of following Game 4, that have been killing the Golden Knights and leaving Fleury exposed.
“There’s too many guys staring at the puck-carrier, and we’re leaving the back side open too much,” Gallant told media Tuesday. “Make sure we’re paying attention to the guys behind the puck and away from the puck. Marc will make the save on the guy shooting the puck. We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking away the passes.”
And if the Golden Knights can’t manage that in Game 5 and start shutting down the Capitals cross-ice attack, Washington could be skating around Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena with the Stanley Cup in hand come Thursday night.
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