LAS VEGAS – The Vegas Golden Knights figured they might get something special by crossing a respected goaltending coach with an accomplished goaltender.
Dave Prior and Marc-Andre Fleury are making quite the pair for the historically successful expansion team.
Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion goalie, brought a wealth of experience when he was selected during last year’s expansion draft. He’s aiming for a fourth Cup as Vegas returns home from Winnipeg tied 1-1 in the Western Conference final – Game 3 is Wednesday night.
He has hit it off with Prior, Vegas’ goaltending coach who has helped the 13-year veteran pick up some new tricks.
“He’s a great man,” Fleury said. “I think it shows, he’s been around for a long time. So much experience, he’s seen a lot of goalies, guys I grew up watching and liking, and he’s coached them. I think he’s somebody that wants me to trust in my ability to do things.”
Prior has an old-school approach compared with many current goalie coaches. He thought Fleury would fit with his preferred style and insisted general manager George McPhee target the goalie when Pittsburgh left him unprotected for last year’s draft.
“He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. “He was excited, and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been.”
Said Prior: “When you have somebody who’s as gifted as Marc is, it’s trying to keep him playing to his potential all the time. He’s not a backup goaltender. He’s not past his `best before’ date. He still has the capability of playing great.”
Prior, of course, was right. Fleury finished this regular season with a 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage – both career bests – as Vegas had by far the best expansion season in league history. The veteran also boasts career-best postseason numbers in both categories, with a 1.68 GAA and .945 save percentage through 12 games.
Prior and Fleury have been cryptic about whatever adjustments they’ve made to Fleury’s game. What Prior will divulge is that he believes once a goalie buys into his way of training, his confidence level increases and he begins to feel more productive in the net.
“I encourage a very strategic goal game that we’re trying to make it very hard for the shooters, not just trying to have all the answers for the shooter’s shot,” Prior said. “Marc is a bit secretive about it, but you have to have a lot of talent to play … it’s a difficult way to play the way I ask our goaltenders to play. I didn’t know how Marc would respond because he’s an older goaltender, and they usually are sort of set in their ways and harder for them to make adjustments. But he’s been great and engaging in embracing this strategy.”
Fleury said Prior has him spending less time worrying about giving up goals in practice and spending less time on the ice before games. Prior doesn’t need Fleury working as hard as possible if he’s working correctly.
“Goaltending plays games with your mind,” Prior said. “When you feel like you can’t stop a puck in practice, you’re worried that’s what’s gonna be showing up in the game. It plays on your mind. Guys always felt `I gotta work, I’ve gotta do everything to make sure I’m gonna be good.’
“Focus on the execution, not worry about `How hard I have to work to give me the best chance to be good,“’ Prior added. “I (prefer) you work less but are correct. It pays dividends when you play the game.”