Robin Lehner knew the Vegas Golden Knights’ decision to start him in Game 4 against the Montreal Canadiens would be viewed by some as controversial. So he decided to relish in the moment.
“Not many people know, I come to the game four hours early, I get my own bus,” Lehner said. “I sat for two hours and watched you guys talk s— on Twitter on me, to get me motivated.”
Lehner was exceptional in Vegas’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal on Sunday, stopping 27 of 28 shots — and keeping the Golden Knights in the game as they struggled to find offense yet again. The Golden Knights have now tied the semifinal series at 2-2 as it shifts back to Vegas for Game 5 on Tuesday.
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said the decision to sit Marc-Andre Fleury — a leading Conn Smythe candidate who had started 15 of the 16 postseason games entering Sunday — had “zero to do” with the veteran goaltender’s costly stickhandling gaffe at the end of Game 3.
Instead, DeBoer cited Fleury’s recent workload and suggested the 36-year-old was fatigued. The coach noted that the team had only two instances of more than one day of rest throughout the postseason.
“We wouldn’t be here without Flower and how he’s played for us, but it’s a lot of hockey,” DeBoer said. “Two emotional series that were both really hard fought. When you look at the numbers in the league, I think he’s tied with [Andrei] Vasilevskiy for most starts in the playoffs so far, and he’s 10 years older than Vasilevskiy. Knowing Lenny, knowing how hard he’s worked. Knowing the goalie he is, the gamble to play him, having not played a lot lately, was no bigger than the gamble of playing a fatigued — in my mind — goalie with no rest really on the horizon.”
Lehner was Vegas’ primary starter throughout the 2020 postseason but has been benched this year as Fleury had the hot hand. Fleury has gone 9-6 with a .921 save percentage and 1.97 GAA. The three-time Stanley Cup winner has 90 career playoff wins, which ranks fourth-all time.
Prior to Sunday’s start, Lehner hadn’t won a game since May 7. He started only one playoff game this year — Game 1 of the second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche — and it was a disaster. The Golden Knights left Lehner out to dry in a 7-1 loss. Lehner allowed seven goals on 37 shots. Fleury returned to the net for Game 2 and every game since.
“It’s been a weird season, with my concussion and surgery and stuff like that, but I’ve been battling hard lately to be a good teammate, be as good as possible,” Lehner said. “It’s great motivation for me. I don’t do the flashiest saves and all those things. But before this season, ever since I got out of rehab, even before that in Buffalo, I’ve been putting up some pretty good numbers. And people act like I’m not very good, especially in our own town. I have a lot [of support] from my team, my teammates, my coaches. Flower and I have gotten really close this year, supporting each other, and we don’t care about the noise. It’s just great motivation for me. It was very enjoyable on Twitter today, and thank you guys very much for giving me that motivation.”
Lehner’s best save on Sunday might have been a series-defining moment. With Montreal leading 1-0 midway through the third period, the Habs had a golden opportunity to increase the lead with rookie Cole Caufield streaking on a breakaway.
“It’s a world-class player coming down. You play it like the first goal and challenge him,” Lehner said. “In the pre-scout we thought he likes to go high or he goes five hole. Looked like he was going five hole, so I closed my leg.”
The save proved to be a catalyst for the Golden Knights’ comeback, as Brayden McNabb scored a late goal to tie it and Quebec native Nicolas Roy won it in overtime.
The Canadiens had a 17-0 edge in high-danger shots heading into overtime, according to Natural Stat Trick.
DeBoer said Lehner might have “the toughest job in hockey, playing behind a legend.”
“How he handled that has earned the respect of everyone in our dressing room,” DeBoer said. “He’s a good man, he’s a good teammate and played a hell of a game for us tonight.”
The coach did not hint as to whom he would start in Game 5. Teammate Max Pacioretty said Lehner had been the team’s biggest cheerleader and has been a positive influence throughout the playoff run. Lehner is often the first to congratulate Fleury after wins, and has thrown his own hat on the ice when a teammate scores a hat trick.
“For him to go in there tonight to be the player we know he is was huge for our team,” Pacioretty said.
Lehner said it was easy to put the Colorado start behind him, as he knew it wasn’t a true reflection of his play. The Golden Knights had a quick turnaround after an emotional Game 7 win against the Minnesota Wild, while the Avalanche had a week of rest.
“I don’t care about the other game; we know the circumstances,” Lehner said. “I don’t think that game in Colorado would have ended much differently with anyone else in the net. It was a hard-fought series against Minnesota. Obviously I wasn’t at my best, but it wasn’t the best circumstances, so you have to let those things go.”
Lehner said moving forward, he is fine with however the starting goaltender situation shakes out.
“It doesn’t matter to me. Truly, in my heart, I don’t care if I’m on the bench or in the net,” Lehner said. “I want to do what’s best for the team. That’s what people don’t understand. It’s a team game. Everything is blown out of proportion with the whole thing here.”