DeBoer's gamble to start Lehner pays off with critical Game 4 win

The Golden Knights beat the Canadiens as Nicolas Roy scored the overtime winner on Carey Price to tie the series 2-2.

If you thought Peter DeBoer was panicking when he made the call to sit Marc-Andre Fleury and play his backup in Game 4, Robin Lehner would like to thank you for your support.

Because in the hours before Lehner’s first star performance on Sunday night in Montreal, Lehner didn’t just lounge around watching the final round of the U.S. Open.

Instead, he did what most professional athletes would list as the very last thing they would do in his situation: he combed through Twitter to see what the hockey world was saying about his impending start.

“Not many people know,” Lehner began after a thrilling, 2-1 overtime win, “that I come to the game four hours early. I sat for two hours and watched you guys talk s--- on Twitter about me, to get me motivated.

“I don’t care what people think,” he added, though his actions abjectly dispute that declaration.

Either way, Lehner earned his “likes” on Sunday, stopping breakaways — 27 shots in total — and holding his team in a game that they simply had to have, long enough for Nicolas Roy to score in overtime.

Roy, a little-known third-line centre, nabbed his own rebound just 1:18 into overtime and deftly waited out a fallen Carey Price as his angle faded to black. Then Roy patiently flipped the puck over the Habs goalie and into the net like a father tossing a ball his young child.

To make that soft a shot at that significant a moment belies a five-goal per season NHLer who once scored 48 and 36 goals in junior. And to do it in that venue, with his parents and all his in-laws in the Bell Centre stands...?

Well, let DeBoer tell you how that felt to watch.

“You couldn’t have a better ending in a better place, and a better guy for it to happen to,” the coach said. “English is a second language for him from the town he comes from (Amos, Que.), a tiny little town up in Northern Quebec. There’s a lot of pride in playing in the NHL and then to come into Montreal and score an overtime goal in front of family, friends and everyone watching… It’s a dream come true for a young guy.

“It gives you goose bumps.”

Like a kid playing Pee Wee hockey, Roy knew exactly where his family’s seats were — a petit herd of Golden Knights jerseys among 3,500 Canadiens fans, like one dandelion on a perfectly shorn soccer pitch. He pointed to them after scoring the winner.

Could you imagine the boys down at the Amos pub watching this overtime, cheering for their beloved Canadiens — until one of their own pots the winner for the other team?

“It’s a pretty small town. everybody knows everybody,” said the soft-spoken Roy. “I always dreamed about scoring at the Bell Centre, and doing it in overtime in the semifinals is even better.”

So Vegas ties this series, one that seems on an inevitable charter towards a Saturday night Game 7 in Nevada. But after Fleury had made his gaffe in the final two minutes that sent Game 3 to overtime — and then watched Josh Anderson win a game the Golden Knights had signed, sealed and delivered — the complexities around DeBoer’s decision to go away from their franchise goalie were numerous.

Fleury has done so much for this franchise, folks reasoned. How can you bench him for making one mistake, when he has given the Golden Knights so much?

Well, give DeBoer credit for having big, er, courage.

He made the call. He stood by the call. And it was the right call.

“My only responsibility is to the men in that room, “ DeBoer said. “The message to the room — and there can’t be any doubt in this — is that the decisions we’re going to make are for one reason only: to give us the best chance to win the next game. There is no other agenda. If the players know that, they can live with bad news.”

So, why Lehner?

“We just had played our 17th game in 33, 34 nights. We wouldn’t be here without Flower, but it’s a lot of hockey. When you look at the numbers, he’s tied with (Tampa’s Andrei) Vasilevskiy for most starts in the playoffs (15). But he’s 10 years older than Vasilevskiy.

“The (Game 3) mishandle has nothing do with it. Our depth is our greatest strength in this organization. We haven’t been afraid to do it on defence, up front. And we’re not going to be afraid to do it in net. It’s the strength of the team.”

Lehner, who has been quite open about his battles with depression and his mental state, has quietly settled in behind Fleury after having stolen the No. 1 job away in last year’s playoffs.

“I’ve been battling hard to be a good teammate,” he said. “I don’t do the flashiest saves, but before the season — ever since I got out of rehab, and even before that in Buffalo — I’ve been putting up some pretty good numbers. And people act like I’m not very good, especially in our own town. But I got love from my teammates, my coaches, and me and Flower have gotten really close this season, supporting each other.

“We don’t care about the noise. It’s just great motivation for me, and it was very enjoyable on Twitter today,” he said to the media over Zoom.

“Thank you guys very much for giving me that motivation.”

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