“What percentage do you give him going again tomorrow?”
Both said 90-95 percent. I was on the cusp of 75-80 percent, just because the thought of throwing a goalie in the crease on back-to-back nights just isn’t a comprehensible thought.
For a percentage that high, a goalie needs to be good. That’s just how good Marc-Andre Fleury was.
It was a 3 p.m. start time on Friday when Fleury made 29 saves and blanked the Flames. In 24 hours, the Golden Knights would battle the revamped San Jose Sharks. By default, especially with San Jose leading the Pacific Division and it being another game with no travel, it’s a game Fleury should start. He felt good, he talked with Gerard Gallant and goaltending coach Dave Prior, and Fleury wanted to go. Therefore, Fleury got the back-to-back against San Jose.
Fleury made 33 saves for his fifth shutout of the season. That leads the league. The Golden Knights defeated the Sharks 6-0. They moved back to .500 at 12-12-1. They went 4-1-0 in this all-important make-or-break week of five games in seven days against Pacific Division foes. Fleury won all four of those starts.
And the Golden Knights are third in the Pacific. After all the doom and gloom that was proclaimed three weeks ago, the earth is not plummeting toward the sun.
“It was a tough week to play five games in seven days. I haven’t seen that too much,” Fleury said. “Played all division games and we were able to get some big points this week and climb up the standings, so that was huge for us.”
The Golden Knights were seventh in the Pacific at the 20-game mark, which just so happens when Nate Schmidt returned to the lineup from his suspension. Getting 88 back has been a relief on the ice, as well as the locker room, and that’s no coincidence, but Fleury has been the catalyst for a team that’s needed wins in a bad way.
Fleury started all but one game last week (the aforementioned annihilation in Calgary last Monday). He stopped 81 of 83 shots during Vegas’ three-game winning streak with a .976 save percentage and a 0.65 goals-against average, making him the League’s second star of the week.
That turned his season from: 2.62 GAA, .901 save percentage and a 9-8-1 record ...
To this: 2.33 GAA, .913 save percentage, and a 12-8-1 record.
In short, and I said this a few times over the weekend: Fleury is in a damn zone. What is it like to be in such a zone?
“It depends,” Fleury said. “Sometimes you feel good. It’s tough to understand sometimes or know how it’s going to go. It’s nice when things goes your way.”
Of course, it’s not always that easy.
“There’s always the tips, the screens, the bounces off guys’ legs,” he said. “Other than that, you still feel like the puck doesn’t feel as fast. It’s tough to explain. You read plays better, and you’re just relaxed.”
That’s not to say this will continue. The Golden Knights are hoping it does this week with a three-game road trip this week, starting Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks. That follows with division matchups against the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers to close November.
“We need those points to keep up in the division and climb up the standings,” Fleury said.
Fleury is expected to start Tuesday in Chicago, and a reasonable guess would be Malcolm Subban will start Thursday against a Vancouver team that has fallen off the rails. Fleury will turn 34 years old on Wednesday, and there’s been a bunch of talk (especially on this site in recent days) about giving Subban more time and Fleury some rest.
Gallant has made it known that he will not interfere in goalie discussions. That’s between the goalies and Prior. But as far as Subban goes, the team still believes in him.
“We’re still very confident in [Subban],” Gallant said. “He didn’t have a good start to the season. Most of the goals I watched that went on him weren’t bad goals. We’ve still got confidence in him.
“Fleury’s playing really well. It’s hard to keep him out of the net right now and that’s what your team wants. You want to win hockey games and when a guy’s playing that well, it’s hard to keep him out of the net.”
It’s hard to keep Fleury out of the net when he’s playing that well and, from what he’s said to me before, when he’s feeling the healthiest he’s ever felt.
Beyond the concussions he’s sustained, Fleury has done a better job of taking care of himself and has trusted the Golden Knights’ training and health regimen team to keep him at this peak level as he gets older.
“I like to play,” Fleury said. “They tell me when to play and I just go out there. It depends on the situation. It gets to be a grind after a while. It’s a long season. A lot of games, a lot of travel. It is what it is. You have to be smart about it and I think I’m a little more experienced and I know my body a little better now, so that way I can take care of that.”
The Golden Knights have searched for a string of consistency to believe they’re back. Some home cooking, and wins against a lackluster Pacific Division, could be the recipe for that. It’s been a help for guys like Max Pacioretty (six goals in five games), Alex Tuch (12 points in 10 games) and Schmidt as he continues to ease into the lineup in his return.
Goalies are like good defenses in football: They can travel. That translates in the locker room.
“He makes it a confident group,” Gallant said. “When the goalie plays that well, you know you can make mistakes and get away with them and it makes your group really confident. We’ve had that for a year now. He’s a big part of our group. We all knew that the day we picked him up [in the expansion draft].”
The Golden Knights are going to ride with Fleury as much as he wants to go. He knows his limitations. He will have a say on if he wants a day off. He’s earned that right. He won’t play every last of the 57 games in this season, but he’ll get his fair share.
Like Gallant said, though: How can you take a goalie like Fleury out now? They’ll figure it out when the time is right. For now, winning is of the utmost importance, and it shows.
“I think I see a few more smiles. Everyone’s relaxed and loose, more happy and upbeat,” Fleury said. “It’s a lot more fun when you win. Everyone’s enjoying themselves a little more.”