One of the awesome things about being a fan, writer, or broadcaster of any sport is that we can speculate until the cows come home but our thoughts don’t in any way affect the outcome of a game. That’s also why they pay those other guys and gals the big bucks. What they decide matters a lot. So when Vegas Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer decided to start Robin Lehner for Game One against the Colorado Avalanche, I definitely had some thoughts.
Honestly, I didn’t even go as far as my brain did. I wondered to myself if it was series suicide to essentially cede Game One and then decide you were good enough to win four of the next six against the powerhouse Avalanche. Even as someone who from the beginning had not bought into the Avs for a lot of reasons (unproven goaltending, one-line team, no real scoring depth, etc.) they still scared me plenty.
Plus, consider Lehner hadn’t played in weeks and was traditionally slow out of the gate. He also had a pretty down year overall and rarely looked good or comfortable in net this season. So when DeBoer came out with Lehner over Marc-Andre Fleury, to me it was essentially a massive gamble because your odds of winning Game One sank to new lows.
We now know a few things about Game One. First, it didn’t matter if the love child of Martin Brodeur and Vladislav Tretiak started that game, the Golden Knights would have lost. Second, DeBoer said the reason he started Lehner was two-fold. One was to get him a game, which makes sense. The other was to rest Fleury, which also makes sense… if that’s really the reason. I think DeBoer’s trust in Fleury is way higher than when he first got to Vegas when he almost couldn’t wait to show him the door. Now the realization has set in who the better goaltender is, contract status and age be damned.
So DeBoer saying he was resting Fleury was put to the test in Game One. Was it just something to say to see if he could get Lehner going? As more and more goals went in the Vegas net, the cameras showed an uncomfortable DeBoer. They showed a squirming Fleury. They showed a despondent Lehner.
But what they never showed was Marc-Andre Fleury grabbing his mask and getting into the game. He stayed on the bench, and DeBoer did indeed follow through as he should have with Game One for Robin Lehner. If you want to get him playing time, you leave him in to get playing time. Allowing Lehner to try and work out the rust accumulated from sitting was the right thing to do, and DeBoer did it.
It also put the Vegas Golden Knights in a 1-0 hole and saw them endure a severe beatdown, the likes of which they really hadn’t seen in a long time.
“Game One was almost good for us,” said Alex Pietrangelo after the Golden Knights eliminated the Avalanche in Game Six Friday night. “It was a bit of a wake-up call, knowing that they were coming for us full-speed.”
Interestingly, Vegas also dropped Game Two but played infinitely better.
“We felt like that (Game One) wasn’t good enough. We owed it to our goaltenders to play better than that, and I think after Game One we did.”
Indeed, that game could have gone either way and even though the Golden Knights lost that one, they had found their game again. After that, the VGK won four straight to take out the pre-season darlings in six.
So DeBoer’s calculated gamble, one where the odds of not outright handing the first game of the series to the Avalanche in a series where I thought they couldn’t afford to give one away… worked. In fact, it might be what actually sparked and woke up the team after a tough Minnesota series that was a complete grind. Where the Wild play a solid all-around game, the Avs were speed. Hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.
The Vegas Golden Knights were not sharp in Game One. They were overwhelmed. But they buckled their chin strap tighter for the rest of the series and took care of business. Would the opening game of the series had quite the same effect if Marc-Andre Fleury played out of his mind once again and they “only” lost 3-1, 4-1? We will never know. But getting shellacked 7-1 woke up the sleeping giant. And from that point on, Vegas was back on track thanks in part to Pete DeBoer’s Game One Gamble.