It used to be difficult to imagine hearing “best goalie in the playoffs” and “Marc-Andre Fleury” in the same sentence, unless that sentence read, “Marc-Andre Fleury is most certainly not the best goalie in the playoffs.” But it also used to be difficult to imagine that Alexander Ovechkin would defeat Sidney Crosby in a playoff series, and yet here we are.
Up is down, left is right, and Marc-Andre Fleury has been the best goalie in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs — and he’s doing it for an expansion team from Las Vegas. And depending on how Fleury plays from now until the end of spring, he might go down as the goalie with the best playoff performance in NHL history.
Through his first 10 starts, Fleury — affectionately referred to as “the Flower” by fans and pundits — has pitched four shutouts. For his Vegas Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup,1 they have to win eight more games. If Fleury were to continue his current shutout pace of two in every five games — and conservatively assuming that the Golden Knights win each series in a sweep, limiting their netminder’s chances for shutouts — he’d tie Martin Brodeur for the most shutouts in a single Stanley Cup playoffs with seven. If the Golden Knights were to play the maximum number of games they could play for the remainder of the playoffs (14) and if Fleury continued his two in five shutout pace, he would finish with roughly 10 shutouts.
And to be clear, shutouts aren’t just the cherries on top of a successful netminder’s playoff sundae — there have been 14 goalie-seasons from 1979-80 to 2016-172 in which four or more shutouts were posted in a single playoff run, and in six of those, the goalie’s team won the Stanley Cup.
The Flower is already among the elite
Goalies to post at least four shutouts in an NHL playoff run, 1980-2017
|M. Brodeur||Devils||2003||7||Won Cup|
|D. Hasek||Red Wings||2002||6||Won Cup|
|M. Kiprusoff||Flames||2004||5||Lost in final|
|N. Khabibulin||Lightning||2004||5||Won Cup|
|J. Giguere||Mighty Ducks||2003||5||Lost in final|
|M. Brodeur||Devils||2001||4||Lost in final|
|R. Luongo||Canucks||2011||4||Lost in final|
|T. Thomas||Bruins||2011||4||Won Cup|
|K. McLean||Canucks||1994||4||Lost in final|
|M. Richter||Rangers||1994||4||Won Cup|
|E. Belfour||Stars||2000||4||Lost in final|
|P. Roy||Avalanche||2001||4||Won Cup|
|O. Kolzig||Capitals||1998||4||Lost in final|
|P. Lalime||Senators||2002||4||Lost in second round|
|M. Fleury||Golden Knights||2018||4||?|
And while shutouts are good — they literally guarantee victory in the playoffs — it’s not just in the shutout column that Fleury has impressed: As it stands, he ranks ninth all-time in goals against average for a single playoffs among goalies post-1980 and second all-time in save percentage for a single playoffs among all goalies in the history of the NHL. All this even though the Golden Knights are giving up the most shots per game among teams that are still fighting for the Cup. And despite his reputation as a uniquely bad playoff goalie.
That reputation cost Fleury last summer: Pittsburgh didn’t protect him, and the Vegas Golden Knights selected him in the NHL expansion draft. Despite being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft — and despite being part of three Penguins teams that won the Stanley Cup — Fleury was effectively cast off to the desert. The Penguins preferred to move forward with their newer, shinier model, Matt Murray. That decision didn’t pay off for Pittsburgh this spring: Murray had the worst playoffs of his young career, recording quality starts in just 50 percent of his games and stopping an abysmal 91 percent of the shots he faced. The top two playoff scorers to this point are Crosby and his teammate Jake Guentzel, yet the Penguins are no longer playing playoff hockey. The problem for Pittsburgh in these playoffs wasn’t putting pucks into the opponents’ net — it was keeping pucks out of their own. If only they’d hung onto that Fleury guy.
To be fair to Fleury’s detractors, his playoff numbers before this season are right next to “bad playoff goaltending” in the hockey dictionary: His quality starts percentage in the playoffs is just 50, versus 55 in the regular season. For most of his career, the Flower has experienced a dip in play from regular season to the postseason. This season — for whatever reason — that dip has transformed into a massive ascent. So far this spring, Fleury’s quality starts percentage is an astonishing 80.
Fleury’s metamorphosis has been especially impressive when viewed alongside the historically great playoff performances of his goaltending forebears. The majority of goalies on the list above made their mark in a season when scoring was notably down. From 2001-02 to 2003-04, the average goals scored hovered around 2.6 per team per game. It was in this window of dead-puck hockey — right before the NHL lost a season to the lockout — when the top five goalies on this list were tending net. In the 2017-18 regular season, scoring was up to almost 3 goals per team per game during the regular season. The only two goalies on the list who played in a more free-scoring season in this span were Mike Richter and Kirk McLean, who both posted four shutouts in the spring of 1994 en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
Fleury is blanking teams in a high-scoring season
Goalies to post at least four shutouts in one season’s playoffs and the average goals per game that season, 1979-80 to 2017-18
|Season||Goalies||Avg. Goals Per Game|
|1993-94||K. McLean, M. Richter||3.24|
|2010-11||R. Luongo, T. Thomas||2.79|
|2000-01||P. Roy, M. Brodeur||2.76|
|2002-03||J. Giguere, M. Brodeur||2.65|
|2001-02||D. Hasek, P. Lalime||2.62|
|2003-04||M. Kiprusoff, N. Khabibulin||2.57|
Who knows if the Flower will continue to bloom this spring, but history shows that he’s probably already done enough to earn his Golden Knights a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. And even if Fleury joins Patrick Lalime as the only goalie since 1980 to post four shutouts and not reach the Stanley Cup Final, a conference final berth is a decent consolation prize. And whichever way the pucks bounce going forward, Fleury will have gone further in these playoffs than the team that cast him off last summer. As the Penguins and their younger, shinier goalie march toward the beach, Fleury’s run to the Stanley Cup Final continues.