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Why Pittsburgh loves Marc-Andre Fleury

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Let me start by asking you a question.

What makes your favorite player, your favorite player?

Why do you like them?

Is it the way the play, what they accomplished, a specific moment, something they did off the ice, a personal interaction you had with them? What was it?

There has to be something that drew you to that player.

The reason I bombard you with all of these questions is because on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh Marc-Andre Fleury will be making his first appearance in the city as a visiting player. It is going to be some kind of a wild scene because in the history of the Penguins — heck, in the history of Pittsburgh sports — there are few players that will ever reach the level of popularity that Fleury had among a large portion of the city.

A lot of players — important players, good players — that were a part of Stanley Cup winning teams have returned to Pittsburgh as visitors and received a wide range of receptions. Jaromir Jagr, a legend, spent years being booed every time he touched the puck. Most players get a nice round of applause. Some get standing ovations.

None of them will compare to the one Fleury gets on Tuesday night when the roof will probably blow off the building. There will almost certainly be a non-zero number of people in the stands wearing Penguins jerseys that are actively cheering for a player in the opposing colors to win.

That relationship always fascinated me, and it still does.

Looking at his career as a player objectively there is nothing that really stands out all that much versus any other goalie from his era.

Do not get me wrong, he certainly was not a bad player, and he was always extremely durable. A goalie that could play 65-70 games a year at a — at worst — league average level is a pretty valuable commodity.

But he was never the best — or even second best — player on his own team, and he was never really among the top players in the league at his position.

The league’s general managers never saw fit to vote him higher than seventh for the Vezina Trophy (and only twice voted for him at all). He played in two All-Star games in 13 years and only finished higher than 10th in save percentage once. He had some downright forgettable postseason performances that probably at times made him a detriment to the team’s Stanley Cup chances. Twice he was replaced by other goalies, and while he is a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, he wasn’t the goalie in the crease for the clinching game for two of them and didn’t even play a role in the playoffs for one of them.

This isn’t meant to be critical, it’s just facts.

Still, if you were to poll Penguins fans on who their favorite player over the past decade has been a significant portion of them is going to have Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of that list. He is going to get a heroes welcome.

So again, we’re back to the question of why he is so fiercely loved.

A lot of comes from the fact that anyone that has had any significant interaction with him has never had a negative thing to say about him. Hearing his former teammates talk about him and tell stories about him shows how much reverence they have for him as a player and a person.

That carries over to the fan base because they hear things like this from Ian Cole.

How would you not want to root for a player like that?

Even though he is a highly competitive person behind the scenes, on the ice and on camera he always has that same smile on his face and just seems to be genuinely happy to be there, never taking things too seriously. It is easy for fans to root for a person like that. When Fleury was on his way out of Pittsburgh this past summer having been sent to Vegas as part of the expansion draft, Sean Gentille wrote at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “this would all be easier if he were a jerk. People would be more rational, if nothing else.”

But he was not — and is not — a jerk.

He also is not boring.

His style of play is just … exciting. Not always the most effective, but never boring. A fundamentally sound goalie that always has himself in position to have the puck hit him in the chest isn’t going to appeal to people. It isn’t going to make highlights. Fleury has never been that goalie. He has always relied on freakish athleticism to play the position and has always been capable of making mind-melting saves.

When his career comes to an end he is going to have a lot of great numbers when it comes to wins, championships, saves. It is going to be one of those very good for a very long time careers, instead of one that was dominated by objective greatness over any number of seasons. Or even individual seasons.

But he still had his moments of greatness, and they tended to be HUGE moments.

There was that breakaway save on Alex Ovechkin early in Game 7 of the 2009 playoffs. There was the Stanley Cup clinching save on Nicklas Lidstrom later that spring. The best stretch of play in his career is probably largely forgotten because it didn’t result in a Stanley Cup win, but his performance during the 2007-08 postseason was game-changing, and it would have made him a worthy Conn Smythe contender had the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings that year. As it stands, he was the only reason they won two games in that series against a team that steamrolled them in all six games. With his team facing elimination in a Stanley Cup Final game he stopped 55 shots in a triple-overtime win.

Then there was the 2017 playoffs when he briefly got his job back from Matt Murray and helped propel the team through the first two rounds of the playoffs despite the fact they were probably outplayed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.

That stuff sticks with fans, too.

Then there is the hope he provided.

When the Penguins traded up two spots to select Fleury with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft things were not great for the organization. It was a bad team that had sold off all of its best players for pennies on the dollar, while the future of the team was still very much in doubt.

Fleury was supposed to be the beginning of a new era, and for an entire generation of fans he was the first core building block for what would become a championship level team. He was there before Sidney Crosby. Before Evgeni Malkin. Before Kris Letang. They threw him right into the deep end of the pool, making him their starting goalie on opening night as an 18-year-old, something that is still unheard of today.

He showed up in bright yellow pads and played behind a team that was so unspeakably awful they got outshot by a completely mediocre Kings team (one that missed the playoffs!) by a 48-11 margin on opening night. Fleury, the 18-year-old, stopped 46 of those shots, including a penalty shot. In his next start a week later he stopped 31 shots to beat a Red Wings team that would go on to be one of the best in the league that season for his first career win.

That stands out with fans, the fact he was the beginning of a new era that would probably become the most successful era in franchise history (and from a championship standpoint, it has been).

Was he ever a great player for the Penguins? If we define greatness as being the best on the team or one of the best at his position, the honest answer is no, probably not.

But he was a great person and a great teammate. He was a great ambassador for the team and the league. He provided great hope at a time when there was no hope for the team. He had great moments that led to great success for the team.

That stuff all adds up over 13 years, and sometimes in the eyes of fans it is all worth more than just simply being a great player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info

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The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is now set, thanks to the Boston Bruins winning Game 7 over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-4. The Bruins will move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Washington Capitals to complete the Eastern Conference bracket. Out West, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets will battle out of the Central Division and the Vegas Golden Knights take on the San Jose Sharks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Here’s the full second round schedule, which kicks off with two games on Thursday night:

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kapanen overwhelms Marchand, scores ridiculous goal

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To the chagrin of the coaches and goalies, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are keeping things hectic during the second period of Game 7.

Kasperi Kapanen seems like he’s perpetually battling for a permanent/more prominent spot with the Maple Leafs, but it’s not for a lack of trying or moxie. He’s been hitting posts on some near-misses lately, but saved some magic for tonight.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

You can see that in a 4-3 goal that currently stands as the Maple Leafs’ lead. Kapanen overpowers Brad Marchand and then outwaits Tuukka Rask for an absolutely tremendous shorthanded goal.

(Check out that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

Impressive, especially considering who that came against. At one point, the Maple Leafs had converted on both of their shots on goal early in the second period to go from being down 3-2 to up 4-3. As mentioned after that wild first period, you have to wonder about both goalies’ confidence, but that’s especially true of Rask right now.

To be fair, Kapanen’s showed a real knack for scoring big goals so far during his brief NHL career. As you may remember, he scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 2 against the Washington Capitals during that tight series to start the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also helped them punch their ticket to the postseason in 2016-17 with his first NHL goal.

Then again, maybe this sort of goal is in the blood? Kasperi Kapanen’s shorthanded goal feels reminiscent of a great goal by his father Sami Kapanen:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins – Leafs Game 7 off to wild start, Reilly hit by puck

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You can forgive fans of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for hyperventilating right now, unless they’re merely staring blankly at their screens.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

Game 7 accelerated to 100 mph seemingly in mere seconds on Wednesday:

  • After a Sean Kuraly penalty, Patrick Marleau deflected a puck past Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a stunning 1-0 lead off of a power-play goal just 2:05 into the contest.
  • A delay of game infraction gave the Bruins a chance to tie things up on the power play, and they did just that as David Krejci and David Pastrnak set up Jake DeBrusk. That happened 4:47 into the game.
  • Less than two minutes later, Patrick Marleau scored again, giving Toronto a 2-1 edge that wouldn’t last.
  • The two teams combined for four goals through less than half of the first period, as Danton Heinen showed why he should be playing with the 2-2 goal with 11:50 remaining in the opening frame.
  • The Bruins took their first lead (3-2) of Game 7 with less than a minute left in the first period thanks to a goal by Patrice Bergeron.

Those were just the goals, too, as there were some close calls, making you wonder about the confidence of Rask and Frederik Andersen:

The two teams are also accruing some bumps and bruises, which must be to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s liking.

In the most dramatic instance, Brad Marchand ducked a high Zdeno Chara shot, leaving an unsuspecting Morgan Rielly to take a puck to the face. It’s a scary moment, although the good news is that Rielly was able to return for the beginning of the second period.

Yikes.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Chara also seemed stung by a blocked shot during the first period, as he took a puck to his ankle/foot area. He didn’t appear to miss any time, and it would be tough to imagine him not fighting through it during a Game 7, yet you wonder if the hulking defenseman’s mobility might be hindered after that.

The Bruins and Leafs already put on a show through 20 minutes. We’ll see who’s left standing to face the Bolts, whether this game ends in regulation or hits sudden death in a Game 7.

*Gulp*

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.