I wasn’t a believer in the Vegas Golden Knights, at least as a championship team, when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began. I took the Los Angeles Kings to upset them in the first round and then win the West. Four quick wins later, Vegas is in the Division Finals.
What makes the Golden Knight sweep of L.A. so impressive is that the Kings got the kind of games they needed if they were going to make a playoff run. All four games were teeth-grinding affairs. Los Angeles is built on defense so these kinds of games suited them perfectly. Jonathan Quick did as I expected, and elevated his game in the playoffs. Quick made repeated stupendous saves, the kind that are supposed to break the back of the less-experienced team at this time of year.
Only it wasn’t Vegas who broke. Their own goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, was nothing short of spectacular, in stopping 97.7% of the shots Los Angeles fired his way in the series. Fleury was in “the zone”, the kind goaltenders get in the NHL Playoffs where it becomes apparent that if you get them one goal, they’ll win you a hockey game.
Admittedly, Fleury isn’t a playoff neophyte just because he plays on a first-year franchise. He came from the Pittsburgh Penguins. But on the flip side, that doesn’t make him as battle-tested as the Penguin cloak might make it appear. He split time during these last two Stanley Cup runs with Matt Murray. It was Murray who had to rescue the Pens in 2016, and Murray again won the Finals in 2017.
Fleury certainly had his moments—he was the hero of his team’s seven-game survival of Washington in the Division Finals last year. But in the years when he was the Penguins full-time goaltender, particularly 2012-15, betting on him and the team defense to fold up in spring was as sure a bet as there was in the sport. No more.
Vegas will be well-rested and facing an equally hot team in the San Jose Sharks, who swept out Anaheim in the Pacific Division’s other first-round series. The Sharks have a hot goalie of their own in Martin Jones, who was particularly spectacular in closing out Game 4. Jones has a playoff pedigree of his own, having taken San Jose to the Finals in 2016 against Pittsburgh and as the full-time goaltender.
But my days of dismissing Fleury are over. His success last year in winning the Capitals series cracked my doubts and then outplaying even a red-hot Jonathan Quick this year has blown them away.