Friday, May 18, 2018 | 8:25 p.m.
Everyone in the hockey world has paid attention to the Vegas Golden Knights as they’ve extended the greatest expansion season in any major sport — everyone except for Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, apparently.
At the least, some of the particulars must have eluded Hellebuyck. You know, like the part about how the entire roster jelled so quickly because of the motivation they all shared from their former franchises leaving them unprotected in the expansion draft.
The Golden Knights have shown a transcendent ability to channel disrespect, perceived or otherwise, into fuel for their performances. So ignorance must be the easiest way to explain to Hellebuyck’s comments Wednesday night when asked about Marc-Andre Fleury’s routine of soon-to-be legendary saves in Game 3.
“I like my game. I like it a lot more,” Hellebuyck said. “I like my details and will continue chugging away and getting better every single day.”
Go ahead and put those words right next to Drew Doughty’s quote guaranteeing the Kings would be better than the Golden Knights in T-Mobile Arena’s pregame presentation if Vegas reaches the Stanley Cup Final. And the odds that it will reach the Stanley Cup Final are pretty strong now, after Vegas defeated Winnipeg 3-2 Friday night at T-Mobile Arena to take a decisive 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
The biggest reason why? Fleury has been a whole heck of a lot better than Hellebuyck.
The Golden Knights’ skaters have held their own against the Jets’ loaded four lines, but they’ve been outshot every game — including by a series-high nine shots on goal in Game 4. The teams’ Corsi — a measure of every shot sent toward an opponents’ goal — are even more lopsided, with Winnipeg plus-44 in the series.
The numbers haven’t hurt Vegas because it often seems like Winnipeg has been firing into a brick wall. The Golden Knights’ resistance, meanwhile, has been closer to a cardboard cutout with a few convenient holes.
Fleury had a .945 postseason save percentage through the first three games of the Western Conference Finals to Hellebuyck’s .922. The gap is only going to widen after Fleury made 36 saves in Game 4 to Hellebuyck’s 26 saves.
The eye test indicated the two goalies are even further apart than the statistics indicate — details and all.
It’s hard to imagine Fleury in his current form letting two of the three goals Hellebuyck allowed on Friday to get through. The Golden Knights’ latest opening-minutes score would have been tough for anyone to stop, as Jonathan Marchessault continued his hot streak with a beautifully precise pass to William Karlsson for a goal 2:25 into the game.
But Vegas’ latest immediate answer to a Jets’ momentum-shifting goal — this one came in 43 seconds as opposed to Game 3’s 88 seconds and Game 2’s 12 seconds — fell largely on Hellebuyck. He failed to control a shot from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who got his own rebound, wrapped around the net and found Tomas Nosek for an easy goal from Vegas’ fourth line to put it back up 2-1.
Winnipeg’s pair of goals both came after wearing down Vegas’ defense, and by extension Fleury, with pressure, the second at 5:34 of the third period when Tyler Myers slapped one past him.
But Reilly Smith found himself on a breakaway with less than seven minutes to go, and many in the arena stood with a strong sense of what would come next. He froze Hellebuyck for the game-winning goal.
Put Fleury in Hellebuyck’s spot and that’s a much fairer fight.
In the game’s immediate aftermath, there’s no way to tell if Hellebuyck’s boast got back to Fleury, but the Golden Knights locker room was aware of it. Vegas’ most confident confirmed trash-talker, Marchessault, could barely believe it.
“Did he actually say that?,” Marchessault queried earlier in the day before being assured they were Hellebuyck’s words, and then asked which goalie he would take.
Marchessault kept his answer concise.
“Fleury, not even a question.”
Hellebuyck is only 24 years old, with the majority of what will likely be a standout career ahead of him. But he’s going to have chug awfully hard to compile a résumé that can rival Fleury’s — which includes three Stanley Cup championships and six conference finals appearances so far.
Let’s just say the Golden Knights like Fleury’s game; they like it a lot.