Marc-Andre Fleury gets a rare bit of rest

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To be honest, it can be a challenge to figure out where, exactly, Marc-Andre Fleury ranks among the NHL’s best goalies.

To his strongest proponents, his consistent winning ways and Stanley Cup ring should be all that’s needed to prove that he’s among the cream of the crop. Others look at his solid-but-not-amazing stats* and occasional puckhandling gaffes and see a $5 million goalie propped up by a great system and timely scoring.

Fleury the workhorse

However you feel about “The Flower,” let there be no doubt that the Penguins lean on him heavily. The National Post’s Michael Traikos points out that Fleury appeared in 23 consecutive games coming into tonight. (Brent Johnson finally got the nod as the Penguins are on the tail-end of back-to-back games with the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

Johnson is the sort of veteran backup that can be an under-the-radar asset – as you may recall, he carried the load when Fleury had a slow start last season – but the Penguins seem fine with the fact that “MAF” is starting to approach the Miikka Kirpusoff neighborhood when it comes to his workload.

“I love to play,” Fleury said. “I love to be in there and play in the game. But it’s a long season if you make it to the playoffs and have a long playoff run.”

More Johnson

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma explained that the schedule was previously conducive to a lot of starts for Fleury but admitted that the stretch run is likely to be quite different. Pittsburgh has five back-to-back sets remaining on its schedule and Bylsma indicates that Johnson should see action in a big chunk (if not all) of them.

The subtle importance of rest and good backups

That’s a good big-picture view because the post-lockout NHL hasn’t been too friendly to teams who use their No. 1 guys like the New Jersey once used Martin Brodeur (and seem primed to do, for questionable reasons).

I must admit that I roll my eyes when people use championship teams as the supposed “template” for future squads, but it is telling that the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks gave their talented No. 2 guys plenty of reps last season despite employing expensive starters. Johnson might not be a sexy goalie-of-the-future like Tuukka Rask or Cory Schneider, but the Penguins would be wise to let him ease some of Fleury’s burden in the same way.

* – Fleury’s .913 save percentage is respectable, but oft-criticized Washington Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun is ahead of him by a bit with a .915 mark, for example.

Video: Drew Doughty (mostly) avoids massive Matthew Tkachuk hit

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Hockey is such a fast sport that it’s probably not so easy to make someone your “target.” Instead, a big hit often comes down to the right combination of circumstance and timing.

Still, there’s no denying that Matthew Tkachuk is gunning for Drew Doughty (and the Kings are gunning for Tkachuk) on Wednesday.

Doughty isn’t oblivious to that notion, either, as you can see him avoid what looked like a pretty terrifying hit above.

We’ve already covered the early violence in this game, and it’s quite possible that there will be more carnage going forward. Stay tuned.

Blackhawks bolster Central lead, shine harsh light on Penguins’ struggles

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Blame it on injuries if you want, or emphasize the Chicago Blackhawks’ overall hot finish to the season. Either way, Chicago scorched the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-1, a contest that felt more or less over by the time the first period ended 4-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor.

The Blackhawks scored by committee on Wednesday, with Artemi Panarin (goal, assist) and Patrick Kane (two assists) being the headliners. Meanwhile, former Penguin Marian Hossa has quietly climbed to 25 goals on the season.

Meanwhile, the Penguins limped through this one and have now lost four consecutive games.

With this result, the Blackhawks look like close to a lock to win the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Metro crown is virtually unthinkable for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins might also need to accept the likelihood that they may not enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round.

They’d probably accept that more easily if they can get healthier and get back on track. Wednesday was a little worrisome in those regards.

Video: An early taste of the Tkachuk-inspired violence in Kings vs. Flames

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BREAKING: the Los Angeles Kings really don’t appreciate Calgary Flames rookie-pest-forward Matthew Tkachuk thanks to that elbow on Drew Doughty (and the fallout from all … that).

Tkachuk responded by critiquing Doughty for “complaining to the media,” so there was testiness from the start.

There was jawing before the game. Then Jake Muzzin rebuked Tkachuk’s kind offer for a fight. Finally, Keith’s son dropped the gloves with Brayden McNabb:

It wasn’t the only bout of the opening frame, and there could be more blood to come beyond this Jarome IginlaDeryk Engelland feud:

Players from both teams better keep their heads up (and on a swivel) tonight. The Flames have to hope that this doesn’t result in injuries, judging from what happened to Johnny Gaudreau.

Avalanche sign Toews-like first-rounder Tyson Jost

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Things have been pretty bleak for the Colorado Avalanche this season, but at least they can look to a high pick in the next draft … and maybe dream about how their top pick from 2016 may pan out.

The Avs signed Tyson Jost, the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract on Wednesday. Colorado notes that he’ll jump right into some NHL action to close out this season.

It’s a nice sneak preview, as NHL insider Bob McKenzie noted on an NBCSN appearance (see above) that doing so will not burn the first year of Jost’s entry-level contract. Nice.

Even nicer? McKenzie also compares Jost favorably to … (drum-roll, though the headline spoiled it) Jonathan Toews.

Most obviously, the two both starred at the University of North Dakota. For the sake of fun, here are their numbers in their final years in the NCAA:

Jost: 16 goals, 35 points in 33 games, +17 rating (2016-17)
Toews: 18 goals, 46 points in 34 games (2006-07)

Naturally, Toews enthusiasts in particular will tell you that points aren’t everything … but maybe there are some shades of the two-way Blackhawks center there?

The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy raved that Jost has “man-strength already” back around the 2016 NHL Draft, as you can see in this profile.

“Jost oozes confidence and already looks like NHL captain material for the future.”

Hey, that does sound at least somewhat Toews-like, doesn’t it?

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In other signing news, the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports that the Buffalo Sabres signed UMass-Lowell’s CJ Smith. More on that below.