Robin Lehner replaced Marc-Andre Fleury as the starting goalie and helped the Vegas Golden Knights even the Stanley Cup Semifinals with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 4 at Bell Centre in Montreal on Sunday.
Lehner made 27 saves, one on a breakaway by Cole Caufield in the third period.
“He was excellent,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “I knew he’d be good.”
DeBoer said the decision to start Lehner had “zero to do” with Fleury mishandling the puck in Game 3, leading to the tying goal by Josh Anderson with 1:55 left in the third period. Vegas went on to lose 3-2 in overtime.
Fleury had started 15 of the Golden Knights’ 16 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, going 9-6 with a 1.97 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and one shutout.
Lehner’s lone start came in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Second Round against the Colorado Avalanche on May 30, when he allowed seven goals on 37 shots in a 7-1 loss.
But the Golden Knights had one day to recover for that game after a seven-game series against the Minnesota Wild, while the Avalanche had six days to recover after sweeping the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
DeBoer pointed out Fleury’s 15 starts were tied for the most in the playoffs with Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fleury is 36, 10 years older than Vasilevskiy.
And although this was Lehner’s first start in 21 days, this also was the Golden Knights’ 17th game in 36.
“For me,” DeBoer said, “knowing [Lehner], 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.”
DeBoer has said he will play the goalie who gives Vegas the best chance to win since the Golden Knights acquired Lehner from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 24, 2020 after the Maple Leafs acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks earlier that day.
Lehner took the No. 1 job from Fleury in the playoffs last season. Fleury won the job back this season, when they shared the Jennings Trophy for helping the Golden Knights allow the fewest goals against in the NHL (122).
Each has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the best goalie in the regular season. The NHL general managers voted Lehner a finalist in 2018-19, when he was with the New York Islanders, and Fleury one this season.
“We talked going into the playoffs about using our depth,” DeBoer said. “… We’re not going to be afraid to do it in net. It’s the strength of the team.”
Lehner said he took his own bus, arrived at Bell Centre four hours before the game and spent two hours reading criticism of the decision on Twitter.
“I’ve been putting up some pretty good numbers and people act like that I’m not very good, especially in our own town,” Lehner said. “But you know, I have a lot [of support] from the team, my teammates and my coaches.
“Me and [Fleury have] gotten really close this year, supporting each other. 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 said he has been happy with his role.
“It’s been great,” Lehner said. “We’re on a Stanley Cup journey with a great team, great organization, great guys. It doesn’t matter for me. Truly in my heart, I don’t care if I’m on the bench or in the net. I’ll do the best I can for the team. That’s what people don’t understand. It’s a team game.”
Lehner has tossed his hat onto the ice from the bench to celebrate hat tricks.
“I think first and foremost a lot has to be said about Robin’s attitude this whole time,” forward Max Pacioretty said. “He’s been the No. 1 cheerleader on the team when he wasn’t playing. His positivity has rubbed off on us. And so for him to go in there tonight and be the player we know he is was huge for our team. Just so happy to see a guy like that get rewarded. He truly deserves it.”
The question now is who will start Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
“[Lehner] might have the toughest job in hockey playing behind a legend in [Fleury],” DeBoer said. “How he’s handled that, I think, has earned the respect of everybody in our dressing room, and that’s not stuff that people see, but it’s genuine. He’s a good man and a good teammate and played a hell of a game for us tonight.”