Motivated Robin Lehner keeps Golden Knights alive with masterpiece

With the season on the line, the goalie produces arguably his best performance with Vegas.

Robin Lehner got to Bell Centre early on Sunday

Likely a pregame stretch was had, as well as alone time to clear his mind, because the goalie knew he was going to start the must-win Game 4 of the semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens.

But that wasn’t the grounds for his advance arrival.

“I come to the game four hours early and sat for two hours and watch you guys talk shit about me on Twitter,” Lehner said. “It was great.”

Could’ve been media, could’ve been Golden Knights fans, or it could’ve been even these brave souls who clamored for Marc-Andre Fleury in the most important game of the season.

But Lehner, who had not played since May 30, stopped 27 of 28 shots to keep the Golden Knights in the game long enough — first for Brayden McNabb to tie it in the third, and Nicolas Roy scoring 1:18 into overtime — to win 2-1 and even the best-of-7 series at two games apiece.

Game 5 is at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday.

“For me, it’s just another game, another opportunity to go out and help this team and organization win a game and get one game closer to the Cup Final,” Lehner said.

The crease has been Fleury’s to this point, and there’s no denying that. Many likely felt we saw the last of Lehner this season in Game 1 of the second round against the Avalanche, when Lehner allowed seven goals.

That night in Denver wasn’t Lehner’s fault. Any team coming off an emotional Game 7 win in the first round, to only turn around 36 hours later to face the Presidents’ Trophy winners would have struggled.

But then Game 3 happened. Fleury made the mistake behind his net that led to Josh Anderson’s tying goal, coupled with the overtime winner from Anderson. At the time, it surely didn’t put the wheels in motion that a change in goal was coming.

In an effort to minimize gambling references on this site, it’s impossible because Pete DeBoer made the ultimate gamble. He went with Lehner, who had not played in almost a month, to deliver a performance that would go down, for better or worse, as the most important game of this franchise’s young tenure.

DeBoer felt it was imperative to give Fleury some rest, even for such a high-stakes game. There’s no goalie that would’ve wanted another opportunity at redemption than Fleury. Game 5 against Colorado is a perfect reference point.

DeBoer noted how Fleury was tied with Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the most starts in the playoffs (15) and how the 36-year-old is 10 years his elder to the former Vezina Trophy winner. He also assured that the gaffe from Game 3 had no merit to starting Lehner over Fleury.

“I think tonight was our 17th game in 34 nights,” DeBoer said. “We wouldn’t be here without Flower and how well he’s played for us, but it’s a lot of hockey. Two emotional series that were really hard-fought. Knowing Lenny, the gamble to play him was no bigger than playing a fatigued goalie with no rest on the horizon.”

This is why the Golden Knights committed $12 million in goaltending. Even if the reasoning was there to put Lehner in the crease Sunday, going with a cold goaltender is the ballsiest of decisions. You win, it’s great. You lose, DEFCON 1 is here.

After dominating in Game 3 despite the loss, the Golden Knights were outplayed by Montreal for nearly all of Game 4. The Canadiens outshot Vegas 11-4 in the first period and had 12 combined shots after 40 minutes. Montreal eliminated any forechecking, it took out the neutral zone and pushed Vegas to the outside.

The Golden Knights appeared to get their legs going late in the second; they had a 4-on-4 and then a power play right after. Alex Pietrangelo hit the post with just under two minutes left in the period that almost produced a breakthrough. Instead, Paul Byron got behind the Vegas defense for the second time this series on a breakaway and beat Lehner top shelf with 1:05 left to give Montreal what seemed like an insurmountable 1-0 lead.

To that point, Lehner did everything he could to keep it goal-less. Montreal had nine high-danger chances through 40 minutes, per Natural Stat Trick — the ninth being Byron’s goal.

Montreal followed that up with eight in the third, and none was bigger than rookie Cole Caufield streaking down the left side and coming at Lehner on a breakaway. Caufield tried to go five-hole, but Lehner made the stop with 12:44 remaining.

At exactly 3:21 later, McNabb squeaked a one-timer short side through Carey Price to tie the game.

“It’s a world-class player coming down,” Lehner said. “I tried to play it like the first goal, just to challenge him. In the pre-scout, either he goes high or five-hole, and it looked like he was going five-hole. Just closed my legs.”

The Canadiens had 18 total high-danger chances. Vegas had only one — the reason why this series is now tied 2-2 heading back to T-Mobile Arena.

But the other significant reason is Lehner shutting the door when he needed to. If this game goes sideways, the Golden Knights are facing elimination Tuesday and DeBoer is left to be sitting on the sword that once pierced Fleury’s chest by way of Allan Walsh’s photoshop.

That’s the funny thing about sports: You react accordingly to the wins and losses and evaluate everything in between.

The Golden Knights have made this a best-of-3 series when all hope seemed lost a day-and-a-half ago. Your guess as to who starts Game 5 is about as good as trying to understand why Ben Simmons didn’t dunk.

If it’s Lehner again, though, he might encourage you for more shit talking. And he’d be happy to oblige.

“We’re on a Stanley Cup journey with a great team, great organization, great guys,” Lehner said. “It doesn’t matter, 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. I could cared less; Flower has been absolutely outstanding. He’s the reason why we’re here, along with other guys. You just do what you can for the team, no matter what position you’re in. That’s what it’s all about.”