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Golden Knights will use final 18 games to evaluate goalies

Updated February 25, 2020 - 8:11 pm

Update: Marc-Andre Fleury gets start over Robin Lehner

It’s a sometimes forgotten footnote to the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run two seasons ago that goalie Braden Holtby was demoted to open the playoffs and only regained the starting role after Philipp Grubauer faltered in the first two games.

Goaltending can be a volatile position in the postseason, when loyalty and reputation are often superseded by riding the hot hand.

The Golden Knights’ decision this week to rent goalie Robin Lehner from Chicago is the latest indication they’re in win-now mode, a point that was first reinforced with the firing of coach Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15.

“I get where the team is at. I think they invested so much into doing well this season,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “All that I care about is our team winning. If it’s me or if it’s Robin playing, it doesn’t matter. I just want our team to have success.”

The first-place Knights (34-22-8, 76 points) enter Wednesday’s Pacific Division showdown against Edmonton at T-Mobile Arena riding a six-game win streak.

They lead the NHL in advanced stats such as shot attempts percentage and expected goals share, all indicators of their superiority during 5-on-5 play.

But with his team’s window of opportunity closing fast, general manager Kelly McCrimmon couldn’t afford to have his team’s Stanley Cup aspirations torpedoed by subpar goaltending.

“There was a belief from management and ownership that this team has a chance,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “They didn’t dip their toe in the pool. They jumped in and put some serious assets out there in order to give us some guys to help us to win.”

Malcolm Subban was traded because McCrimmon didn’t have confidence he could win in the playoffs if called upon and grew impatient waiting for the 26-year-old to develop into Fleury’s heir apparent.

Fleury’s play has been better lately, but his 2.76 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 45 appearances rank in the bottom half of the league among goalies with more than 20 games played.

By bringing in Lehner, an unrestricted free agent July 1, the Knights have added insurance for the short term and will worry about the future of the position in due time.

“I’m a big believer competition at any position is a great motivational tool,” DeBoer said.

DeBoer indicated he will rotate his goalies in the final 18 games and has the luxury of choosing between two proven starters.

Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season and is ranked 11th in save percentage (.918) despite playing behind a Chicago team that gives up more scoring chances than any other team in the league, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

His goals saved above average (10.56) is 13th overall and well ahead of Fleury, who is 46th at minus-4.55.

DeBoer can use the next six weeks to help determine the starter for the postseason.

While Fleury has three Stanley Cups on his resume, Lehner is 4-5 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in the playoffs.

Lehner led the Islanders to a first-round sweep of Pittsburgh last season before Carolina won four straight in the semifinals.

“It was a shock, but I’m pleasantly surprised,” Lehner said. “They have a hell of a hockey team in here, and it’s fun to join a team with a chance to win the Cup. I’ll just try and be as good as I can and help when I can.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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