LAS VEGAS – For a guy who has been living in Las Vegas for two years now, Golden Knights’ general manager George McPhee still hasn’t learned to bluff.
In discussing his team’s first-round playoff opponent, McPhee praised the Los Angeles Kings’ experience and ability and volunteered “they have the better players, so we’ll just have to play as a team and see what happens.”
But most of the best players Wednesday night were on McPhee’s team, which won the National Hockey League’s Pacific Division and finished 11 points ahead of the Kings. And the very best player in Game 1 of the series was in the Golden Knights’ goal.
Marc-Andre Fleury, bounced from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net in last year’s Stanley Cup tournament and later to Las Vegas in the expansion draft, returned as a playoff starter and beat the Kings 1-0 at T-Mobile Arena.
Fleury, whose last complete game for the Penguins was a 1-0 win against the Ottawa Senators in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference final, made 30 saves and out-duelled Kings goalie Jonathan Quick as Vegas’ miraculous inaugural season continued.
“I was hoping to be fighting for a playoff spot,” Fleury said of coming to Vegas from Pittsburgh. “We were well ahead of that. It’s been a fun journey throughout the season from the draft to where we are now. I’m really happy to be part of this team, very proud of the way the guys have played all season and again tonight.
“I think that’s the loudest I’ve heard this building. It was rocking. Right form the start, the intensity, the physical play, a little more chippy out there. It was fun. That’s what makes playoffs interesting.”
These playoffs could be fascinating for Fleury.
Two nights after that shutout last May, Fleury was hooked by Penguin coach Mike Sullivan for allowing four goals on nine first-period shots in Game 3 against the Senators.
He never played again.
Matt Murray, who dislodged Fleury as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goalie one year earlier, started the Penguins’ final 10 playoff games last spring and led them to a second straight Stanley Cup.
Fleury, 33, was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft and became the first face of the franchise.
Despite missing two months due to a concussion early this season, Fleury posted a career-best save percentage of .927 and goals-against average of 2.24 as a Golden Knight. If he’d played 10 more games – 56 instead of 46 – he’d probably be a Vezina Trophy finalist.
Most of the Golden Knights – by definition, cast off by other teams – have pushed themselves to new levels of performance this season. Fleury just discovered his old level, the one that made him a Stanley Cup winner in 2009 and one of the longest-tenured starters of his generation.
“The eight games I was out of the lineup (injured), it was not fun,” Golden Knights winger Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said when asked about Fleury. “But the best part was I got to see him play. I was like the No. 1 fan. He’s unbelievable. The whole year he’s been unbelievable. I’m not really worried about his game.
“The only thing we can worry about is for us to be at his level. This is what we have been striving for the whole year.”
Buzzing the Kings with their speed and forecheck on the opening shifts of the game, the Golden Knights went ahead 1-0 at 3:23. William Carrier’s heavy check on Los Angeles defenceman Christian Folin led to a turnover, and a few seconds later Vegas’ Tomas Nosek spotted Shea Theodore at the point and the defencemen beat Quick with a screened 60 footer.
Bellemare, the third member of a crash line that was probably Vegas’ best, may have deflected the puck just above the crease.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We won the game, no? When it comes to this time of the year … the puck is in the net and that’s all that matters.”
The Knights capably defended the one-goal lead for the final 56½ minutes and looked especially good defensively in the third. The Kings were one of the best third-period teams in the NHL during the regular season, outscoring opponents 97-58 in the last 20 minutes of regulation time, but generated fewer good scoring chances than the Knights did in front of Quick.
“I think regular-season stats are not always in play in the playoffs, you know,” Fleury said. “I thought we played great. We didn’t give them much. I thought we had the puck most of the time.”
And when the Kings had it, Fleury looked close to unbeatable. Halfway through the third period, his slide wide to block Anze Kopitar’s attempt from a sharp angle, was caught in a pileup, and scrambled back into his crease without his stick, blocker or mask. It looked like he wanted to beat the Kings with his bare hand, although play was soon stopped.
Afterwards Fleury smiled at the recollection and said: “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right?”
Game 2 is here Friday.