Marc Andre Fleury, Brent Johnson

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.

Sharks flip the script, tie Penguins heading into third period

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates with teammates after scoring a second period goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (not pictured) in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins dominated the San Jose Sharks in the first period of Game 1, no doubt about it.

Even so, the Sharks entered the middle frame down 2-0, and responded rather than shriveling up. They basically switched roles with the Penguins in the second period, ultimately tying things up 2-2.

The first goal was one Matt Murray would probably like back (even more than a goalie would want any goal back, mind you), as Tomas Hertl beat him five-hole for a power-play goal.

Witness the Sharks’ first-ever goal in a Stanley Cup Final:

Fittingly, a grizzled veteran and longtime face of the Sharks’ franchise tied it up, as Patrick Marleau made it 2-2 with a clever wraparound:

Which team will win the third period? Could we see overtime? Find out on NBC.

Report: Blues will bring back Hitchcock with one-year deal

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues walks on the ice in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Yes, the St. Louis Blues fell short of the Stanley Cup Final, but they still broke some playoff hexes in 2015-16. Apparently Blues management saw enough to bring back Ken Hitchcock.

That’s the word from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos, who report that the Blues are expected to announce a one-year deal with the veteran head coach on Tuesday.

Friedman wonders if these one-year pacts (Hitchcock was on one for 2015-16 as well) may chase away other staffers:

When asked about these scenarios, Hitchcock seemed like he was in favor of experiencing a perpetual “contract year.”

“I scare myself because I think if I take long-term deal, I’m gonna get sloppy,” Hitchcock told Hockey Central at Noon and Sportsnet back in mid-May. “I want to stay on one-year deals.

For plenty of fans, it makes perfect sense to bring Hitchcock back after the Blues took steps forward.

Others wonder if Hitchcock’s style (which leans toward dump-and-chase and “gritty” hockey more than some other teams) may leave the Blues in the dust, however.

That’s a debate for a bar or a message board, yet one can see deeper logic in giving Hitchcock one more shot.

While the Blues have decisions to make – including what to do with free agent captain David Backes – the team is also structured to make another run. Brian Elliott, Jake Allen, Kevin Shattenkirk and Colton Parayko all have deals that will expire after 2016-17, and each contract is a bargain.

If St. Louis believes that Hitchcock is the right fit for that personnel group, then it makes sense to give him another go.

Crosby, Rust and Sheary lead Penguins’ early charge

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Evgeni Malkin #71 after scoring a first period goal against the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Generally speaking, the strategic talk heading into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final focused on the San Jose Sharks’ deeper defense vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blinding speed.

It’s very early, but so far: advantage Penguins.

Pittsburgh came roaring out of the gate in front of a boisterous Consol Energy Center crowd, but it took them a while to break through.

Once the Penguins did, they raced ahead to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals just 1:02 apart.

First, Bryan Rust kept his red-hot streak going with the 1-0 tally.

Moments later, Sidney Crosby made a beautiful pass to Conor Sheary to put the Penguins up two.

There were a few other moments in which the Sharks looked like they were really struggling with the Penguins’ speed, but Martin Jones made some saves that could be big if San Jose can gather its wits.

Beard breakdown: Burns vs. Thornton (Video)

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Sometimes you need to ask important questions, breaking down positional battles and strategies.

Other times you can’t help but ask “Which guy has the better beard?”

In the case of Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks boast two players with elite beards to match their elite skills. “Jumbo Joe” drew a lot of attention for his wild facial hair, yet Burns may very well have inspired Thornton to go heavy-whisker in the first place.

The video above breaks down those two beards, in case you’re itching for a comparison.

One thing that sparks little debate? Both players’ wives are real troopers.