If the Stanley Cup playoffs are a study in adjustments, then Vegas coach Pete DeBoer made the biggest and most successful one so far in starting Robin Lehner in net.
It paid off.
Nicolas Roy scored early in overtime as the Golden Knights found a way to battle through Montreal’s stifling defence for a 2-1 win on Sunday in Montreal’s Bell Centre. That tied the series at two games apiece, sending both teams back to Vegas for Game 5 on Tuesday night.
It also made a winner of Lehner, who made 27 saves as the surprise starter in the Vegas net. Lehner got the start over Marc-André Fleury, after Fleury’s gaffe in Game 3 cost Vegas a win.
Paul Byron scored in the second period for Montreal. Brayden McNabb scored in the third for Vegas to force overtime.
It was the fifth overtime game for both teams: Vegas is 2-3, Montreal now 4-1.
Lehner is no slouch, with his name engraved twice on the William Jennings Trophy, awarded to the team with the lowest goals-against average during the regular season. But he had only played once in 41 days, a loss in the second round. Fleury had carried the Golden Knights this far in the playoffs.
But playing Lehner or Fleury could have been immaterial, unless one of the goalies could score on Price. Because the rest of the Vegas players were having trouble doing that, until McNabb tied the game to force the overtime. It was his first of the post-season, but the seventh goal by a Vegas defenceman against Price.
Vegas blinks: When one team blinks, and changes its goalie, it’s incumbent upon the other team to test the new guy. And Montreal did in the first period, taking the game to Vegas in the early going, leading in shots 11-4.
Lehner was equal to the challenge, and the game went the first 20 minutes without a goal.
It was Lehner’s second start of the playoffs. And though Pete DeBoer would not confirm before the game that Lehner would get the start ahead of Fleury, the Vegas coach didn’t seem too worried about Lehner’s readiness when it came to the rust-versus-rest discussion.
“Any players moving in and out of the lineup, it’s always an issue,” said DeBoer. “These guys practise every day … We throw all those factors into the hat when we’re making those decisions.”
Opportunistic Habs: Vegas’s struggles on the power play continued, and in a game where it looked as if the referees had swallowed their whistles, it perhaps wasn’t going to matter. Vegas finally got the game’s first power play late in the second, and though they moved the puck well and Alex Pietrangelo hit the post, the Golden Knights were still without a goal with the extra man in the series. Then just as the power play ended, Byron got a breakaway and beat Lehner over the shoulder. Montreal had the lead, 1-0, after 40 minutes.
Swallowed whistles: The standard of officiating couldn’t be ignored as the referees seemed to allow lots of illegal infractions, like hits from behind and slashing, as the game’s temperature rose. These things usually matter more for fans, who jeered their displeasure at the Bell Centre, than the players. It was the same two referees — Dan O’Rourke and Chris Lee — working Game 4 that worked Game 3, when they were roundly criticized for missing a high stick on Corey Perry that led to six or seven stitches on his nose.
Positive test: COVID-19 continued to be a factor with Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon testing positive for the virus. The Golden Knights said McCrimmon went into self-isolation. No players have tested positive, and every staff member and player involved with both sides have gotten a double dose of vaccines, which can’t prevent transmission but can lessen the effects of the virus.
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme has been in quarantine since Friday but told the media on Sunday he feels no effects.
McCrimmon, like Ducharme, can stay in touch via phone or video conference call. Missing the bench boss at this time of year is probably a bit more critical than missing the GM.
“You feel helpless, just watching and hoping for the best,” Ducharme said. “It’s a weird situation. I’ve never been through that. The last time I watched the Canadiens on TV it was probably like three years, four years ago. Kind of special situation, but it’s been a special year. We’ve been through a lot, and we’ll get through that.”
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