Gerard Gallant didn’t consider pulling Marc-Andre Fleury as another game and perhaps the Vegas Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup hopes slipped away.
The struggles and another pile of Washington Capitals goals are on the entire team. Gallant couldn’t pull all his players at once.
“There was nothing that he could have done,” Gallant said.
As the face of the franchise and its backbone on the ice, Fleury did just about everything to lead the expansion Golden Knights to the Cup Final with a .947 save percentage that made him the playoff MVP front-runner. In four games against Washington, Fleury has allowed 16 goals on 103 shots, a pedestrian .845 save percentage that speaks as much to Vegas crashing back down to earth as a team.
There is plenty of blame to pass around for the Golden Knights as they face a 3-1 series deficit that no team since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs has overcome in the final. Vegas needs Fleury to be better and his teammates to improve in front of him in Game 5 on Thursday night or they will watch their opponent celebrate a championship their home ice.
“When you’re a goalie you don’t want to get scored on,” Fleury said. “There was a lot of that (in Game 4). It’s never a good feeling. It’s a team game. Everybody’s trying hard out there, trying to help me out. We’ll find a way to make it work.”
It’s not working right now. The Capitals’ strategy of making lateral passes to get Fleury moving side-to-side is proving effective at even strength and on a power play that’s scoring at a 26.7 percent clip.
Forward Alex Tuch said staying out of the penalty box is one necessary improvement, but it goes beyond that. Vegas has ridden Fleury to this point and now has to cut down on the high-danger scoring chances he’s facing and too often allowing to turn into goals.
“Play better defensively,” Gallant said Tuesday. “There’s too many guys staring at the puck carrier, and we’re leaving the back side open too much. Make sure we’re paying attention to the guys behind the puck and away from the puck. Marc will make the save on the guy shooting the puck. We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking away the passes.”
Fleury didn’t make the save on Devante Smith-Pelly on the doorstep in Game 4 as the Golden Knights fell behind 3-0 despite one of their best periods of the series that featured James Neal’s inexplicable shot off the post facing a wide-open net. As Gallant pointed out, Fleury had little chance on others as Washington put up six goals in a blowout .
Golden Knights players can’t help but feel like they’re letting “Flower” down.
“We have the best goalie in the league and he’s been carrying (us) the whole year along and we feel like the goals … there’s not much you can do on those,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “This is the frustrating part.”
Fleury acknowledged falling behind 3-1 was demoralizing. But the 33-year-old refuses to say fatigue has been a factor for him or his teammates.
“I think everybody’s fine,” Fleury said. “It’s the same for their team, also. They’ve been through the same season, same playoffs. Being tired is no excuse.”
The Golden Knights have lost three games in a row as they near the end of an otherwise-charmed inaugural season. Perhaps Fleury has one more stand-on-his head, stop-everything game left in him in front of the home fans in Las Vegas, but the Golden Knights will need more than a singular effort from their goalie.
“Not where we want to be, that’s for sure,” Fleury said. “Nobody’s quitting. We’re going home. We’ve had some success there. We just have to focus on period at a time, you know? Don’t think too far ahead. Just play our game, see where that takes us.”