If the cliché holds and goaltending really does win championships, the Stanley Cup Final will be a doozy.
The Vegas Golden Knights boast one of the hottest hands in the history of hot hands with Marc-Andre Fleury, while the Washington Capitals bring the dangerous Braden Holtby to the table.
There are some interesting things binding these two clubs.
Dave Prior is Fleury’s goaltending coach in Vegas. Prior spent 16 seasons with the Capitals before he was shown the door by Adam Oates in 2013. The problem? Oates didn’t think Prior was helping acclimatize Holtby’s game to where it needed to be.
Washington subsequently brought in Mitch Korn and Holtby went on to win the Vezina in 2016.
It’s hard to believe now, but Holtby was the backup going into these playoffs. Philipp Grubauer was swapped out in Game Two of the first round against Columbus and Holtby’s never looked back, posting two straight shutouts against Tampa to close out the Eastern Conference Final.
The numbers for the Washington netminder are top-shelf, with a 2.04 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.
Korn has Holtby playing a measured but authoritative game, which means positioning is key. Tampa took him to task with some cross-ice passes and scored nine of their 15 goals on crosswise plays. Faked shots also work to get Holtby to drop into a premature read, at least sometimes. He seems to pick up on plays quickly.
That leaves Vegas to work with deflections. 52 percent of the goals scored on Holtby in the first two rounds were ricochet goals. But true to form, the Lightning only scored one goal with a deflection and the 28-year-old made all the right modifications.
The Golden Knights hired Prior in August of 2016 and turned him loose on Fleury. In turn, the Vegas netminder had the best season of his career. In the post-season, he’s been lights-out with a 1.68 goals against average and a .947 save percentage. He has four shutouts in 15 starts.
Under Prior, Fleury plays an aggressive style. But he’s not chasing pucks as much as he used to in Pittsburgh, which has cut down on blunders around the net. That’s not to say there isn’t room for the Capitals to exploit weaknesses, though.
Prior’s inclination toward antagonism means that Fleury will perhaps not back down on the rush, which opens the door to Washington’s rapid set-ups. If they waste little time carving out cross-seam passes to Alex Ovechkin and setting up their lethal offensive talent for one-timers, they could catch Fleury as he moves sideways.
The Winnipeg Jets found this opening with Patrik Laine scoring two one-timers with the man-advantage.
There is connective tissue between these goalies and that tells an interesting story as they fight for the prize.
Fleury has the experience edge and the hardware in his back pocket speaks volumes. But this is about emotion and retribution for the Golden Knights netminder. He’s got something to prove.
Holtby wants that first taste and his hunger makes him lethal. He’s got the fundamentals and skill to back it up.