Wednesday, May 30, 2018 | 10:20 p.m.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury was so impenetrable in net for the Golden Knights he almost appeared superhuman.
Two games into the Stanley Cup Final, the Washington Capitals seem to be his kryptonite.
Washington topped the Golden Knights 3-2 Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena to even the series 1-1 and steal home ice advantage from Vegas as the series shifts to the nation's capital.
After posting an incredible 1.68 goals against average and .947 save percentage in the Western Conference playoffs, Fleury’s numbers have crashed back to earth in the final. In the first two games his save percentage has been a lowly .870.
The Capitals seem to have cracked the code to beating Fleury, and they’ve done it with patience.
At only 6-foot-2, 180 pounds Fleury isn’t a big goaltender, but he makes up for his lack of size with skating ability and aggressiveness in the crease. He regularly ventures far from his goal line to challenge the shooter to appear bigger and cut off shooting angles.
That has served him well this postseason, as he’s rarely been beat by a shot, but the Capitals are using his aggression against him.
“I think that’s his strength and weakness,” said Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who was the beneficiary of the strategy in Game 1 on Monday. Forward T.J. Oshie held the puck for an extra second to force Fleury to commit to a shot, then dished it sideways to Carlson who slapped the puck into the wide-open net.
“If you can use it against him, it’s a weakness — and certainly he reads the game pretty well in certain situations he can get out on you and make it really difficult to score,” Carlson said. “The more options we attack with, the more dangerous situations we can put him in. I think that’s what we try to do with every goalie based on their tendencies, and it’s no different with him.”
Wednesday night the Capitals scored their first goal of the game by using this same strategy. Defenseman Michal Kempny walked in all alone on Fleury, forcing the goalie to come out of his crease to challenge him. Once Fleury was sufficiently out of the blue paint, Kempny fed the puck to Lars Eller at the other circle and Eller scored on the wide-open net.
“If you can make (the goalie) move laterally it makes it hard on them and you can set yourself up for a goal,” Eller said, “but especially Fleury.”
Fleury did nothing wrong on the play, as the Golden Knights’ defensive structure is designed to allow him to be as aggressive as he wants. It’s carried them this far.
“The guy was by himself in front of me, so that’s my guy and I have to take care of him,” Fleury said. “A lot of the time they try to wait for me and then go backdoor by passing it across, but I have confidence in my defense. My job is to stop the shooter and the puck, and that’s been working fine for us.”
On the goal, defenseman Colin Miller got turned around with his body facing the wrong way, and he wasn’t able to get his stick in the passing lane to prevent the pass to Eller.
“That’s how (Fleury) plays and that’s the way we want him to play,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “They are going to make good plays and that was a really good play on that goal. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap.”
Fleury isn’t at fault on the play. He played the shooter like he’s coached to do by goalie coach Dave Prior, but the defense has to prevent the backdoor pass. If they don’t, the Capitals will continue to employ that strategy, as it’s one of the few ways to beat Fleury.
Each goalie uses a different style, and Washington netminder Braden Holtby is an example of a goalie who stays closer to his net. It costs him on shots, like it did in the first period when James Neal rifled a wrister over his top shoulder and into the top corner. If Holtby had come out of his net another foot, that corner of the net wouldn’t have been an option for Neal.
His passive style helped him on the biggest save of the game — and possibly Capitals franchise history — when his depth in net allowed him to dive over and get the paddle of his stick on Alex Tuch’s one-timer in the waning moments that would have tied the game. Playing most of his career in the Eastern Conference with the Penguins, Fleury has faced the Capitals quite a bit, and he’s fared well. In 38 games against Washington he is 22-12-2 with a save percentage of .914.
But with all of that experience, the Capitals players have learned how to confront him.
“He’s a tough goaltender to score on,” Oshie said. “He works very hard in net. But at the same token we have some guys here that have played against him for quite a long time, and they’ve found ways to get pucks in.”
So far the Capitals have managed to coerce Fleury into overcommitting, but it’s a long series. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has carried the Golden Knights to this point, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t rise back to that level and help them earn the three more victories needed to hoist the trophy for his fourth time.
Fleury and his team will have to get it done on the road. They travel to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday before returning home for Game 5.
“We’re a special group,” Schmidt said. “We can go out and win games on the road. We’ve done it all playoffs and it should be no different.”