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‘Playoff Fleury’ no more? Golden Knights goaltender the driving force behind series sweep

Marc-Andre Fleury had his share of playoff struggles in Pittsburgh, but now with the Golden Knights, the veteran goalie stole the show in a series sweep of Los Angeles that saw each game decided by a razor-thin margin.

One of the ways we teed up the post-season here at THN was by taking a look at potential x-factors for every playoff team. These were the players who could make or break a series for each respective club, be it a star center, depth winger or netminder who would have all eyes on him. For the Vegas Golden Knights, it was the latter, and Marc-Andre Fleury landed the tag with good reason.

You see, despite Fleury’s excellent regular season numbers, we’ve seen this story before with the veteran netminder. Throughout his career, the 33-year-old has had several seasons with an above-average save percentage. He’s led the league in shutouts before. He’s earned a pair of top-10 Vezina Trophy finishes. He’s even finished top-10 in Hart Trophy voting. But nearly every single time, almost without exception, Fleury has failed to perform when the playoffs rolled around. In fact, Fleury had been so statistically two-faced from the regular season to playoffs that the term ‘Playoff Fleury’ was coined to describe his post-season shortcomings. It’s not that the somewhat-pejorative nickname wasn’t earned, either. 

During his time in Pittsburgh, Fleury saw action in 115 playoff games, and in more than 40 percent of those contests — 49 of the 115 games, to be exact — he finished with a .900 save percentage or worse, and his career playoff numbers were dragged down by a less-than-impressive .908 SP. In eight of the 22 series in which Fleury played at least four games for the Penguins, his SP was at or below his career rate, and that includes four head-to-heads, two of which Pittsburgh managed to win, that saw Fleury post an .890 SP or worse. 

Yes, he has three Stanley Cup rings, but it wouldn’t be all that hard to argue that much of the Penguins’ post-season success during Fleury’s tenure as the No. 1 came despite his play. Case in point? Fleury’s .908 SP during Pittsburgh’s 2009 title run was the worst by a Stanley Cup-winning starting netminder since Tom Barrasso, coincidentally also of the Penguins, posted a .907 SP during 1992 playoffs.

All of this is to say that there were still questions about Fleury’s ability to get the job done in the post-season even after he backstopped the Golden Knights to top spot in the Pacific Division on the strength of a 29-13-4 record with a career-best .927 SP, 2.24 goals-against average and four shutouts. But after his series-sweeping performance against the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1, we might be witnessing a change in how we should perceive Fleury’s post-season play.

True as it may be that the Golden Knights were up against a middle-of-the-road offensive club in the Kings in the first round, it’s not as though Los Angeles didn’t test Vegas defensively. In the opening game, the Golden Knights surrendered 30 shots, but Fleury turned aside each and every one in what ended as a 1-0 goaltending duel. Los Angeles again fired 30 shots on Fleury in Game 2, only for the netminder to continue his dominance by allowing just one goal against as Vegas pulled off a 2-1 overtime victory. Statistically speaking, Game 3 was Fleury’s worst of the series, but worst is all relative when he’s posting a .949 SP, allowing two goals on the 39 shots the Kings were able to muster. And Fleury put a cherry on top of Vegas’ sweep Tuesday when he stopped all 31 shots for his second shutout of the series.

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It was Game 4, too, where Fleury gave off the feeling that he’s found something special this season. Tested with a few quality looks late from a Kings team that threw everything on net — the shot attempts at all strengths were 67-41 in favor of Los Angeles at game’s end — Fleury blocked everything and gave little in the way of second-chance opportunities. Per NaturalStatTrick, only four times were Kings players able to get shots on goal that created quality rebounds. And given Fleury limited rebounds like that, it should be no surprise he finished with a .990 SP (!) at 5-on-5 for the series.

But the real foundation for Fleury to give his past post-season demons the slip may have been laid during the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh. Because while he was plagued by the aforementioned struggles in the playoffs during much of his time with the Penguins, Fleury was called upon when Matt Murray fell injured ahead of the 2017 post-season and turned in a standout performance in relief. In the opening round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Fleury posted a 4-1 record with a strong .932 SP. He followed that up with a .921 SP against the rival Washington Capitals, pitching a shutout in the seventh and deciding game to send Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference final. And while he was shakiest in that series against the Ottawa Senators, his .910 SP through three outings was still better than his career average.

Fleury shaking the playoff underperformer label might actually stretch further back, too. Dating back to the 2014 tilt against the Blue Jackets, Fleury hasn’t had a single series with a sub-.908 SP and has posted a .920 SP or better in five of seven rounds. And when combining his past 39 playoff games, Fleury has a .926 SP to go along with a 21-17 record. Of the 17 goaltenders to play 20 or more playoff games over that same span, only Murray, Martin Jones, Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson have superior numbers, though Fleury’s six shutouts are tops in the league.

So, is Fleury still the Golden Knights’ x-factor? He may very well be. But if there’s any reason to call him that, it appears it’s now for his ability to steal games that Vegas should otherwise lose. And if he can continue to play as he has through the first round — and as he has dating back to the 2014 first-round tilt against Columbus — maybe ‘Playoff Fleury’ can have an entirely different meaning by this time next year.

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