Tim Thomas looks to become first American Conn Smythe winner since Brian Leetch

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Tim Thomas is compiling quite the list of accolades between his Vezina Trophy-worthy 2010-11 regular season and his Conn Smythe-worthy postseason.

Beyond drawing abstract comparisons to all-time great goalie performances made by legends such as Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek, Thomas is putting his own stamp on the NHL record books. He broke Hasek’s single season save percentage record, seems primed to win the Conn Smythe regardless of how Game 7 turns out and is one save away from breaking Kirk McLean’s all-time record for saves in a single playoff year.

While Thomas is breaking records for goalies of any nationality, some people might take added pride in the fact that he is putting together possibly the greatest playoff run by an American netminder. To hammer the point home, he would also be the only U.S. born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy aside from New York Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch.

In a cruel twist, Leetch also managed that feat against the Vancouver Canucks as the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

A golden era for American goalies?

This pending honor is quite the accomplishment for Thomas, no doubt, but it must also be a promising sign for U.S. Hockey. For the second year in a row, an American-born netminder had the best run of any goalie in the world. Last year, it was Ryan Miller’s outstanding work in the Olympics and Vezina Trophy victory for the 2009-10 season that made him the goalie of the year. Now it’s Flint, Michigan-born Thomas whose combined regular season and playoff outputs make him the most successful goalie of 2010-11.

While other elite goalies (perhaps most notably Henrik Lundqvist?) would certainly get their fair share of votes, it’s not crazy to think that Thomas and Miller could be considered the best goalies in the world at this moment. With all due respect to the work done by Mike Richter, Tom Barrasso and “Miracle on Ice” goalie Jim Craig, it’s tough to think of higher point for American goaltending.

Miller and Thomas are at the top of the heap, but there are a few other American goalies who could approach All-Star level performances if things work out. Jonathan Quick was excellent at times for the Los Angeles Kings and might just hold off Jonathan Bernier as the team’s goalie of the present and future. Craig Anderson has struggled here and ther but currently ranks as the Ottawa Senators’ savior in net. Jimmy Howard might be overshadowed by the veteran talent in Detroit, but he is the Red Wings’ franchise goalie.

Thomas’ style and journey make him a truly American success story

In a way, Thomas might be the “American dream” in goaltending form. His free-form style is as democratic as netminding technique comes, although it’s probably most accurate to call his sprawls “anarchic.” His oddball career path almost looks like an immigrant’s dream, too: he was barely drafted and spent his formative years bouncing around the world but just would not be denied. Thomas fought for every opportunity he’s been granted and now finds himself at the top of his profession.

It probably seems silly to root for the Canadian-heavy Boston Bruins for patriotic reasons, especially since the Vancouver Canucks employ one of America’s best players in Ryan Kesler. Yet when you look at Thomas, it’s tough to see a more American goalie, which makes his probable Conn Smythe victory (and previously improbable shot at a Stanley Cup) even more satisfying for hockey fans in the United States.

After ‘breakout’ year in AHL, Fleury ready to crack ‘Canes lineup

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If it feels like we’ve written about Haydn Fleury being ready to make the leap before… well, it’s because we have.

Quite a few times.

There are reasons for this, of course. Fleury was the second defenseman off the board at the 2014 draft, taken six spots behind No. 1 overall selection Aaron Ekblad. He’s just one of two top-15 picks from his draft year yet to play in the NHL — the fifth overall selection, Isles prospect Michael Dal Colle, is also waiting to make the leap — and he’s already two years behind fellow ‘Canes blueliner Noah Hanifin, who was taken in the ’15 draft and just wrapped his sophomore NHL campaign.

Progress has been a slow process. But now, it finally sounds like Fleury’s ready to break through.

“He’s had, in my opinion, a breakout year,” AHL Charlotte coach Ulf Samuelsson said this week, per the Observer. “He’s been one of our most consistent players. He’s taken a step maybe each month and the last month has made the biggest step because he’s now using his size.

“He’s hard to play against. He’s always been good joining the rush, jumping up, but he has turned into a really good two-way defenseman.”

After a lengthy junior career in Red Deer, Fleury played his first season of pro hockey in Charlotte this season, and acquitted himself nicely. He raced up seven goals and 26 points in 69 games and, as per Samuelsson’s above quote, has used his 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame to his advantage.

Some might look at Fleury’s slow progression to the pro game, and consider him a draft bust. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

‘Canes GM Ron Francis has taken a more deliberate approach with Fleury, 20, and another promising blueliner, 21-year-old Roland McKeown. Both were knocking on the door of making the Carolina roster to start the year, but Francis opted to send them back to Charlotte for more seasoning.

One might wonder why Francis opted to slow play these two, when Hanifin was fast-tracked to the NHL at 18. The answer might not lie with Fleury and McKeown, but rather the group as a whole — Carolina had one of the youngest bluelines in the league this year, featuring Hanifin (20), Jaccob Slavin (22), Brett Pesce (22), Ryan Murphy (24) and Justin Faulk (25).

Murphy, however, could be lost to Las Vegas in the upcoming expansion draft, resulting in an open roster spot. And journeyman Matt Tennyson, who appeared in 45 games on defense for the ‘Canes this season, is a pending UFA.

All this points to Fleury making his long-awaited NHL debut in the fall.

‘We took two steps forward, maybe three’: Kekalainen excited about Blue Jackets’ future

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Despite an early exit from the playoffs, Columbus Blue Jackets executives like the team’s development and defensive depth.

However they won’t rule out a trade this summer that would bring another standout goal-scorer to town.

The Blue Jackets, picked by many to finish near the bottom of the stout Metropolitan Division, won a franchise-record 50 games and 108 points on the way to a third-place finish in the division behind Washington and Pittsburgh.

That’s 16 more wins and 32 points better than 2015-16. They were at the center of the hockey world at midseason when they had a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest streak in NHL history.

But the playoffs were a big disappointment. Columbus lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled to get saves at critical times as he had done all season.

“Last year sitting here you probably felt we had taken a step backward, and this year we can feel that we took two steps forward, maybe three,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters Monday.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the 4-1 exit from the playoffs,” he said. “(But) four out of five games we thought we were right there, neck to neck with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“(We) out-chanced them, outshot them, didn’t get the result we wanted. We always try to look behind the results. There were games in that series where we played very well.”

Kekalainen said the organization will stick with its patient strategy of developing players from within. But also possible, he acknowledged, is a big trade or free-agent signing for another scorer who could get them over the hump.

“Do we look for somebody from the outside? Absolutely,” he said. “But we’re going to try to build it with the process in mind that we’ve talked about all along. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s make sure that everything makes sense in the long term as much as it does in the short term.”

Kekalainen and team president John Davidson said the team that lost to Pittsburgh in five games this season was better than the one eliminated by the Penguins 4-2 in 2014.

“I firmly believe in this group going forward,” Davidson said. “We’ve got a good base here, but we’ve gone through a lot of the transition of trying to build your own from within through the draft. I’m pretty positive about this.”

The players are disappointed but also optimistic about the future in Columbus. Everyone finished generally healthy, except for defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who needs hip surgery and four months of recovery.

Nineteen-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, who took a puck in the face that fractured his cheekbone in a playoff game, is recovering and not expected to suffer any long-term effects.

“We’ve really just been a team that’s just trying to get to the playoffs,” captain Nick Foligno said Saturday when the team gathered for the last time.

“Now the mindset is how are we going to stay, how are we going to do well, how are we going to win? That’s what I’m most excited about is the growth and the mentality.”

Kekalainen is not worried about Bobrovsky, who had a .882 save percentage and a 3.88 goals-against average in the five playoff games after finishing the regular season among the league’s best with a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. He’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

“He knows he needs to be better in the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “He will be better, I’m convinced. He’s that driven, he’s always looking for ways to get better.”

Nobody wants to get started with another season more than the 28-year-old Russian.

“It’s a tough way to finish the season,” he said. “It’s disappointing. But you have either success or experience. So this time, with this playoff, I had experience and I will learn from it and move on.”

PHT Morning Skate: Is it too early for the Caps and Pens to be meeting?

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–Here are NHL.com’s 10 storylines to keep an eye on in the second round of the playoffs. Obviously, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is up there, but so is a matchup between Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne (who would’ve thought). Both goalies were incredible in the first round.  (NHL.com)

–The Edmonton Oilers were able to knock off one team from California in the first round, and they’ll look to do the same in round two against Anaheim. The Edmonton Journal looks at eight positive and eight negatives for the Oilers going into the series. The Ducks are a little banged up right now, and the Oilers did pretty well against them during the regular season. On the downside, Anaheim is a deeper team, and they’re fully capable of playing a nasty brand of hockey. (Edmonton Journal)

–Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch breaks down the five different types of playoff beards. No surprise that Joe Thornton and Brent Burns‘ beards find themselves in the “jumbo” category. (The Score)

–Everyone is looking forward to the series between the Pens and Caps, but is it too early for them to be playing each other? Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg isn’t impressed with the way the playoff format works. Steinberg writes: “The Caps and Penguins-the first- and second-best teams in the NHL- both won in the first round, and will face each other this week, starting Thursday night. Seven other teams finished with at least 100 points; four have been eliminated. And so the second-round matchups have all the logical consistency of a third-grader’s Pynchon plot diagram.” (Washington Post)

Mark Scheifele had some interesting things to say during a Q&A with Sportsnet. One of the things he touched on was the NHL deciding not to go to the Olympics. It’s safe to say he’s not a fan of the decision. “I look at it as it’s misrepresenting our sport. I think [Jonathan] Toews said that. The Olympics is a big honor, and for us to turn that honor down is junky.” (Sportsnet)

–The Hockey News’ roundtable looks at the four teams that should be most disappointed by their first-round exit from the playoffs. After finishing at the top of their respective divisions during the regular season, the Blackhawks and Canadiens being bounced early has to be incredibly difficult for each of those two markets. (The Hockey News)

It doesn’t sound promising for Matt Murray

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Matt Murray wasn’t available for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. If he ends up being an option vs. the Washington Capitals, it might not be for a while.

The Penguins provided a less-than-promising update on Monday: he hasn’t yet resumed skating.

Now, there is some time for him to even get ready by Game 1, as their second-round series doesn’t begin until Thursday.

Considering Washington’s firepower, it would be nice for the Penguins to have two championship goalies to choose from in case things get ugly, but at the moment it seems like it’s Marc-Andre Fleury or bust.

“MAF” has his critics, but his overall work was strong vs. Columbus.

He won four of five games, generating a fantastic .933 save percentage. That’s a promising start to the playoffs, providing some hope despite a shaky .907 career playoff save percentage and a middling regular season (18-10-7, .909 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).

The less-than-positive aspects of Fleury’s numbers make Murray’s continued injury issues more unsettling, but Pittsburgh will just need to hope for improvements.

Or for Fleury to remain at the top of his game.