Robin Lehner received a soft, consoling pat on the back from Marc-Andre Fleury as he exited the ice Sunday. On a normal night, the goalie situation would have been the big story for the Vegas Golden Knights.
This was not a normal night.
The Golden Knights didn’t just lose to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Second Round at Ball Arena. They were blown out 7-1. Although Lehner wasn’t at his best, it wouldn’t have mattered who was in net — Fleury, Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, take your pick. Any GOAT would have been a goat.
“I wouldn’t change the decision,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “The game tonight wasn’t about Robin Lehner, and obviously we didn’t play well enough in front of him.”
It was a controversial decision, to be sure.
Fleury went 4-3-0 with a 2.14 goals-against average, a .932 save percentage and two shutouts against the Avalanche in the regular season, and he started each game in the first round against the Minnesota Wild, going 4-3 with a 1.71 goals-against average, a .931 save percentage and one shutout.
Lehner played one game against the Avalanche in the regular season and allowed two goals on 21 shots in a 2-1 loss. That was May 10. He hadn’t played since.
DeBoer had a simple explanation.
“[Fleury] had just played seven games in  days and an emotional Game 7,” DeBoer said. “It was a perfect opportunity in our minds to use our other starter, and that’s been a strength of ours all year. And [it was a chance to] make sure Robin got in a game and stayed sharp, because we know we’re going to need him. So there was a lot of rationale for it.”
Fair enough. Fleury is 36 years old. Game 7 of the first round was Friday.
But that goes to the larger problem. We call these best-of-7 series, but they’re really races to four wins. The quicker you dispatch your opponent, the more chance you have to rest for the next round and win the war of attrition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Avalanche swept the St. Louis Blues in the first round, wrapping up their series May 23. They had six days to recharge for the second round. The Golden Knights took a 3-1 series lead against the Wild, then lost two straight games and had to win Game 7 to advance. That gave them one day to recharge for the second round.
“Obviously at this time of year, any time you can get rest it’s going to help your team,” Vegas defenseman Nick Holden said. “We had an emotional series there with Minnesota. Obviously coming into this, we were trying to ride that emotion into it. Our start and the start of the second wasn’t what we wanted.”
The Avalanche dominated the first period and took a 2-0 lead, then made it 4-0 by 4:03 of the second. Lehner might have wanted a couple of the goals back. The first came on a backhand by forward Mikko Rantanen, a wicked shot, but a shot from outside the right face-off dot. The fourth squeaked between his pads. It was a no-look shot by center Nathan MacKinnon, who has eight goals in five games, but still.
That said, the Golden Knights turned over the puck and gave up rush chances. They were outskated and outplayed. And then, after forward Mattias Janmark was knocked out of the game by a hit by Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves, they fell part, lost their composure and took penalties.
“We kind of get away from our game,” Vegas captain Mark Stone said. “But let’s be honest here: When you’re down 4-0 halfway through the game, it’s a long way to climb from. But we’ll be ready [for Game 2]. There’s no doubt in our group.”
They’d better be ready. They’d better hope rest was the biggest problem. These teams tied for the most points in the NHL in the regular season (82), Colorado winning the Presidents’ Trophy thanks to the regulation-wins tiebreaker (35-30), but they looked like they were in different leagues Sunday.
Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog (two goals, one assist), MacKinnon (two goals, one assist) and Rantanen (one goal, one assist) put on a clinic. So did defenseman Cale Makar (one goal, three assists).
“I think we gave their skill players just a little bit too much respect, a little too much room, and obviously good players are going to make plays in that space,” Holden said.
Game 2 is at Ball Arena on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). No matter who starts in goal, the Golden Knights need to put him in a better position to succeed than they put Lehner in Game 1.
“We’ll flush this one,” Stone said. “We’ll see what we did wrong. There’s a few areas that we were actually not bad at, but there’s a lot of things we need to improve going forward. We’re fortunate to have two days in between games here, a little bit of rest, a little bit of recover, regroup, and be ready for Wednesday.”