Golden Knights & Capitals Features Classic Goaltender Duel

As the Washington Capitals prepare to move from also-ran to Stanley Cup champions, the Vegas Golden Knights are also preparing to hoist the Cup as a fitting end to their storybook season. In the middle of all the storylines are two players upon whose shoulders both teams have been carried thus far.

The goaltenders, Marc-André Fleury of the Golden Knights and Braden Holtby of the Capitals have shown themselves to be up to the task of putting their teams on the backs and giving them each a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup Final. Both have had careers that make them worthy of being described as elite goaltenders. Both are ready for the games to begin. The question is what will eventually separate one from the other in victory and in heartbreaking defeat?

Marc-André Fleury

Fleury has been here before. His 13-year tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins netted him three Stanley Cup championships in 2009, 2016 and 2017. But, at age 33 Fleury is arguably playing some of the best hockey of his career. Drafted first overall in 2003 by the Penguins, he has had a career that has been outstanding, but questionable during the playoffs. Deserved or not, he earned the reputation of not being a good playoffs goalie.

Bad Playoffs Rep for Fleury

Jared Clinton at The Hockey News wrote in April:

“But nearly every single time, almost without exception, Fleury has failed to perform when the playoffs rolled around. In fact, Fleury had been so statistically two-faced from the regular season to playoffs that the term ‘Playoff Fleury’ was coined to describe his post-season shortcomings. It’s not that the somewhat-pejorative nickname wasn’t earned, either.”

Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights
Marc-Andre Fleury has exceeded expectations over his career. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Fleury earned the skepticism of the league surrounding his playoff play, but the Penguins stayed with him. As it turned out, it was a very good decision.

As recently as March 2016, Fleury was still being questioned as to whether or not he could be relied on in the playoffs. I wrote at that time that his reputation for being “playoff unreliable” was largely earned. As history would have it, Fleury got injured and was replaced by the rookie, Matt Murray, who stayed in-goal even after Fleury recovered and led his Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship. It could have been the end of Fleury’s tenure with the Penguins, but he maintained his professional demeanor and supported Murray all along the way to the teams’ victory.

A year later, redemption came calling for Fleury. Murray got injured and Fleury stepped in and played outstanding hockey in the playoffs. Barry Trotz, head coach of the Washington Capitals was quoted in a post by Bill West at TribLive as saying of Fleury during last year’s playoffs:

Because of maturity and because of the way the game has changed, I think he’s evolved. I think he’s a lot more patient than he used to be. … Just like any veteran goaltender, they’re like a fine wine. They get better.

The tandem of Fleury and Murray brought the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh for the second straight season, and Fleury seemed as if he had exorcised the demon of unreliability. The Penguins rewarded Fleury by not protecting him in the Golden Knights’ expansion draft and off he went to the desert. Now, he’s about to play in yet another Stanley Cup Final, and the Penguins will be watching from home. The irony is amazing.

“Playoff Fleury” Now a Good Name?

Clinton notes that some of the playoff woes looked to be hanging around Fleury at the beginning, but he seemed to shake that off and has moved into a different zone since the series with the Los Angeles Kings. Clinton wrote, “It was Game 4, too, where Fleury gave off the feeling that he’s found something special this season. Tested with a few quality looks late from a Kings team that threw everything on net — the shot attempts at all strengths were 67-41 in favor of Los Angeles at game’s end — Fleury blocked everything and gave little in the way of second-chance opportunities.”

Since then we have all watched Fleury on the ESPN or NHL Network morning shows in recaps of his outrageous play. Sliding and diving and doing any and everything to keep the puck out of the net, Fleury is a gigantic reason that the Golden Knights are living the storybook season, and could conclude the last chapter hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Braden Holtby

Holtby has quietly backstopped the Capitals for yet another season in the playoffs. This time they have gotten to the Stanley Cup Final. But it is Alex Ovechkin who is the center of the media’s attention. The headlines scream, “Finally!” not for Holtby, but for Ovechkin. That is normal when you are one of the top two players in the world along with the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby. And while Ovechkin’s “almost” resume is lengthy and often discussed, Holby just goes out and does his job.

Holtby has Been Reliable

Ryan Lambert of Yahoo! Sports wrote last Friday, “So now, in the midst of another perfectly great postseason run, Holtby’s team is very much in the Cup Final because he has been, well, Holtby again. The number of scoring chances he’s faced per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time? It’s up from the previous two playoffs. The number of high-danger chances is the third-highest in his playoff career. And yet the number of goals he’s allowing — both on those chances and in general — are at some of the lowest levels ever seen in his career.”

Kasperi Kapanen, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Braden Holtby, goaltender for the Washington Capitals (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Lambert points out that while Fleury has had his playoff demons, the 28-year old Holtby has shined brightly in the postseason. It’s quite the contrast when considering that Fleury has three rings and Holtby is still striving for his first. Holtby has a career playoff save percentage of .930 and goals against average of 2.01. Fleury’s career playoff save percentage is .913 and he has a goals-against average of 2.53. Fleury’s team can be said to have lifted him to win three Stanley Cup championships, but that would not do justice to the fact that he has been a big help to his team. On the other side, Holtby has done his part and more. He needs his team to come through, also. As Lambert points out,

The reason the Capitals lost in previous playoff runs were almost never down to Holtby, though: shooting percentages of 7.6, 5.4, 6.0, and 7.3 very much were. To overcome that kind of shooting inefficiency, even going .940 isn’t always going to get it done. Which is an incredible thing to have to say, but it’s absolutely true.

At this point, however, Holtby has a lot in front of him to feel good about, especially names like Ovechkin, T. J. Oshie, and Nicklas Bäckström. The monkey is off of the Capitals’ back and they are finally playing in the Stanley Cup Final. Holtby has had an outstanding cast of characters surrounding him in the past, some of them even are the same. But, the cast has yet to play in this particular series.

Holtby Got Back

Holtby had a similar situation to what Fleury has faced in that he had to get his spot back. Fleury got his back when Murray was injured in 2017, Sammi Silber of The Hockey Writers wrote in April that Holtby got his back when Trotz pulled Philipp Grubauer and gave Holtby back the goaltender reins. Silber noted, “Holtby’s success in the playoffs is hard to deny. In 60 career playoff starts, Holtby has registered a 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage.” At that time and even now, Holtby has proven that he is a reliable playoff goaltender.

Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby, Flyers vs Capitals, Dec. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The question that looms large is, “Will the Capitals slack off now that they crossed that previously impossible threshold of getting to the Final?” Or, will they continue on the positive momentum of breaking through and win it all?

Fleury or Holtby for the Win?

One of the hardest things to predict is which of these two elite goalies will hoist the Stanley Cup. According to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Fleury has something to prove. Last week Cook wrote, “Fleury wanted out and wanted a fresh start in a place where he could be the man. He wasn’t happy watching Murray lead the Penguins to the Cup in 2016 and 2017. He was and is eager to prove to the hockey world that he remains a world-class goaltender. Vegas has benefitted big time from that motivation.”

Pressure, Advantage Fleury

Also, Fleury is playing in his fourth Stanley Cup Final. This is Holtby’s first. The pressure to perform is obviously great on both netminders, but might it be greater on Holtby in this his first finals rodeo? If so, how will he respond to that pressure?

Health, Advantage Holtby?

Fleury was clearly favoring his leg when at the end of Game 5 against Winnipeg. He was also noticeably moving slower than usual getting up off the bench and heading to the locker room. CBS Sports says that despite reports of injury, Fleury is taking some time off and will be ready to go. There have been no recent reports of any possible injury situation surrounding Holtby at this time.

Momentum a Toss-up

Holtby has pitched two consecutive shutouts on his way to the Stanley Cup Final. His play has been exceptional and he has not looked afraid of the moment or of any situation thus far. He looks dialed in and ready to give his best effort to win four more games. His defense has helped him by keeping the play in front of him to a minimum. He has been able to keep the rebound opportunities to a manageable amount in the playoffs.

Fleury has been a highlight reel in-goal night after night. But, while he has been standing on his head, this may be a piece of the game that gives the edge to the Capitals. With Ovechkin blasting lasers and Oshie and company willing to bury themselves in the crease, will Fleury be able to count on his defense to limit rebound opportunities? If so, then look for the Golden Knights to have a strong edge. If not, the Capitals could make it a long series for Fleury.

Fleury vs Holtby Bottom Line

The bottom line is that both goalies have done what they have needed to do to get to where they are. Fleury is 12-3 in the playoffs with a 1.68 goals against average. Holtby is 12-6 with a 2.04 goals against average. Both have amazing talent and limited weaknesses to exploit.

But, it’s Vegas so a pick has to be made. I’m going with the Flower. Fleury has been in an amazing zone and his having been in the finals before give him the slight edge over Holtby. The Capitals will play bone-crushing hard-hitting hockey, and Ovechkin does have the baggage of not being able to get to the finals off of his shoulders. But the overall team speed of the Golden Knights, combined with Fleury’s experience gives them the nod for me. How about you?