Over the course of a 14-year N.H.L. career, even the most steady, levelheaded goaltender suffers the occasional slip-up.
In a preseason drill last fall, Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had joined the expansion team from the Pittsburgh Penguins, a perennial power, vented his anger after allowing a series of goals.
Fortunately, Fleury had David Prior on his side.
One part father figure, another part psychologist, Prior has made a career of helping the league’s top goaltenders channel their emotions in the right direction. So when Fleury slammed his stick to the ice in frustration, Prior took him aside to provide some reassurance.
“He said it doesn’t matter; they have no one on them,” Fleury said outside his locker on Wednesday. “They have time to shoot from the slot. They won’t have that luxury in games. If you keep doing the right things in practice, it will show up.”
While Prior has made tweaks to Fleury’s game, it is his mental approach that has had the most discernible effect on the former No. 1 overall pick’s resurgence in the desert. Entering Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets, Fleury has a 1.53 goals-against average in 10 playoff games, along with a .951 save percentage. He leads the league in both categories.
A more detailed analysis of Fleury’s performance quantifies Prior’s impact. Facing 182 low percentage shots through two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Fleury has made stops on all 182 attempts, according to data from Clear Sight Analytics. The trend underscores a Prior maxim that he has imparted on goaltenders for more than three decades: Stay patient and force the shooter to beat you with an exceptional shot.
The two reconnected in Washington years later when McPhee, then the Capitals’ general manager, hired Prior as the team’s goaltending coach before the 1997-98 season. There, Prior helped revitalize the career of Olaf Kolzig, a peripatetic goaltender who spent the better half of his first eight years as a pro in the minors.
Using a Zen-like approach, Prior instilled the confidence in Kolzig that he could raise his game to an elite level. Prior also moved Kolzig deeper into the crease in an effort to rein in some of his aggressiveness. The minor adjustments resulted in Kolzig’s first appearance in the N.H.L. All-Star Game.
But when Kolzig dropped five games in a row after the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, his confidence began to wane.
So, Kolzig said, Prior spliced together a clip of every goal surrendered by Kolzig over the losing streak. As the coach and pupil watched the film session, Kolzig came to the realization that the majority of the goals were not his fault. Kolzig won seven of his next eight games as the Capitals prepared for the postseason.
Under Prior, Kolzig and Braden Holtby captured the Vezina Trophy, given annually to the league’s top goaltender. The Golden Knights did not make Prior available for an interview for this article.
Victories by the Golden Knights and the Capitals in their conference finals would set up a matchup against Prior’s old team with the Stanley Cup on the line.
“If we don’t win the Cup, I certainly hope Dave and George do,” said Kolzig, who serves as the Capitals’ professional development coach. “I think what they’ve done is one of the greatest stories in sports.”