Marc-Andre Fleury

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Fleury gets revenge against Penguins, Vegas grabs 20th win

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If you’re the fussy type, you might object to the word “revenge” in the headline.

It feels wrong to say that Marc-Andre Fleury got “the last laugh” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, being that this game happened in mid-December. So feel free to soften the verbiage; maybe you’d prefer to say that Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights merely “got the best” of the Penguins.

Either way, round one goes to “MAF.”

The instinct might be to ding this game because it came in Vegas instead of Pittsburgh, but you could say that there was a healthy offering of Penguins fans tonight:

Whatever way you slice it, there was reportedly a fascinating atmosphere in Vegas, even if the game was a bit “low-event” at times, at least when you consider sheer pucks on net; Fleury stopped 24 out of 25 shots on goal while Murray gave up two goals on 26.

This odd-angle goal by Ian Cole was the only puck to beat Fleury, who was lights out in a second straight victory since returning from concussion issues that … we thought might have been the end of the Golden Knights’ hot start.

If the scene wasn’t nostalgia-laced enough, consider that Fleury evoked the save he made against Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final:

Sheesh, some of this stuff almost seems on the nose, doesn’t it?

Remarkably, the Golden Knights improve to 20-9-2 while the Penguins fell to 16-14-3. Writing that almost made me pass out from the unlikelihood of it all; honestly, if someone told Golden Knights management that their record could be 16-14-3, they’d probably take it, right?

In case you’re wondering, yes, this marks another record.

So, the Golden Knights are 12-2-1 in Vegas so far. This doesn’t guarantee that there’s some sort of … sickness that comes from playing a team located in Sin City, yet it doesn’t exactly slam the door shut on such a conversation, either.

Now, Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s done quite a commendable job of shutting the door so far for the Golden Knights. His old buddies found out the hard way tonight.

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.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray and their lasting friendship formed in Pittsburgh

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The text was short and sweet, but it was the start of a friendship that continues today despite a difference in uniforms.

Matt Murray had just won the 2014-15 “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as AHL rookie of the year when his phone buzzed. It was a text from Marc-Andre Fleury, who was coming off of his 10th NHL season. It was a simple message congratulating him on a great season that ended with “see you in training camp.”

The two didn’t realize that a little more than a year from that moment they would be helping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the first of two Stanley Cups — two championships that both would play an integral part in as the franchise slowly experienced a changing of the guard in goal.

***

On Thursday afternoon Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made it official. Murray would return from a lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since Nov. 27 to start against the Vegas Golden Knights. It was a piece of news that completed the intrigue into the first meeting between the two teams this season. Earlier this week, Fleury played his first game in over two months after dealing with a concussion. It was a warm-up game for the real main event — a game against his old club and the chance to stare down at the other end of the rink and see his former mentee between the pipes.

“It’s exciting for me. He was definitely my mentor, the biggest mentor I’ve had in my pro career,” Murray said on Wednesday. “I wish I had more time to study under him and more time to be around him, but unfortunately we’re on different sides now.”

***

The writing was on the wall at the start of the 2016-17 NHL season. With Murray’s emergence during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and an expansion draft looming in June 2017, it was clear that Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh was coming to an end. And while other general managers may have tried to swing a deal in order to get something in return for the player, Jim Rutherford, a former goaltender himself, knew how vital it was for the team to have a two-headed monster. He saw how important it was during the run the previous spring, and with the Penguins going for back-to-back championships it wasn’t going to happen without two trustworthy goaltenders that Sullivan could call upon.

Fleury sticking around through the end of last season proved vital as he grabbed the starter’s reins again after Murray got hurt before their first playoff game. As he did the the previous postseason, Murray regained the No. 1 job and led the Penguins to a second straight Cup.

All of that doesn’t happen if Murray isn’t sharing the net with a veteran like Fleury, and learning as much on the ice as he was off of it.

“He’s been unbelievable. I don’t know where I would be without Fleury’s mentorship, his advice,” Murray told me after the 2016 Cup Final. “There was a couple of times where I was struggling throughout the playoffs and even during the season, and I think that’s normal for a rookie. This is my first time in the league and first time going through this.

“Of course I had some ups and some downs. He was there all the way through to help me through the downs. I’ll remember our friendship forever.”

While some may have a wanted to paint an icy rivalry between the two, it was never like that for them. They wanted to help each other, which in turn would benefit the team. When it was crystal clear Fleury’s days in Pittsburgh were numbered, it was about supporting the young goaltender to handle the rigors of being a full-time No. 1.

When a lower-body injury took out Murray before their first game against Columbus in Round 1 last spring, the final love-in for Fleury began. He helped the Penguins dispatch the Blue Jackets in five games and once again knock out the Washington Capitals in seven games. After Pittsburgh dropped two of the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, Sullivan turned back to a healthy Murray, who would start their final 10 games, which ended with another championship.

Fleury may not have finished the job last June in Nashville, but he was a big reason why they were there in the first place, and a huge reason why Murray, the one in net when the clock hit 0:00 at Bridgestone Arena in Game 6, was prepared for the moment.

The celebration in Nashville was one of the final times Murray and Fleury were together. Everyone knew it was Fleury’s last ride and the emotions poured out from his teammates. And when Fleury did his final Cup raise as a Penguin, he gave it a kiss and turned to seek out Murray. He would find him and after exchanging words, he handed off the trophy to his crease mate.

That decision will stay with Murray forever.

“It means everything to me, honestly,” Murray said after Fleury’s Cup pass. “The fact that he handed me the Cup there that was one of the most special moments in my life, for sure.”

***

Ask Fleury what was special about his time sharing a crease with Murray and he’ll tell you “winning.” After a dinner with former teammates Wednesday night, they’ll be opponents on Thursday inside T-Mobile Arena. There will be some fun trash talk during the game from both the Penguins and the goaltender himself, who’s known to dish it out pretty good. Then the two teams will go their separate ways until Feb. 6 when Vegas travels to Pittsburgh for the first time. That’s when there will be an outpouring of love from the city where he grew up as a professional and began raising a family.

And barring any unforseen circumstances, one of Fleury’s biggest fans will be on the other side of the ice once again and memories of their time winning back-to-back championships will resurface.

“That’s what it’s all about. Being able to share it with a good young goaltender who’s going to have a good future,” Fleury said. “I was fortunate to share that with him.”

————

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.

Spark Penguins need might already be in organization

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are in need of a spark, and general manager Jim Rutherford seems to know it.

On Wednesday he told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is close to considering a “major” trade to potentially shake things up if things do not start to turn around on their upcoming three-game road trip. It is a bold statement from the general manager of a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups, but nearly halfway through the season it is becoming increasingly clear that this team is lacking … something.

That something could be any number of things.

Defensively they have not been great. They have been plagued by dreadfully slow starts in recent games. They lost a ton of depth over the summer with the free agency departures of Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey (as well as the expansion draft departure of Marc-Andre Fleury), and while their power play is as dangerous as any team in the league, they have been one of the absolute worst teams in the league when it comes to scoring during 5-on-5 play.

Put all of that together and you have a team that enters play on Thursday sitting on the playoff bubble in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

I have already written about the Penguins’ depth issues this season, and in the weeks since then the gap between their top-six production and their bottom-six production has only widened. That is a big problem.

The greatest strength the Penguins had the past two years on their Stanley Cup runs was their forward depth and every line’s ability to contribute to the offense. As great as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are they are not going to score every single night. There has to be some offense coming from the other two lines, and this season the Penguins are not getting that. Even with the concerns on the blue line (made worse now by the injury to Justin Schultz) this seems like the biggest area to address.

It might also be the easiest because the solutions might already be knocking on the door.

In each of the past two seasons the Penguins have received huge contributions from call-ups from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team. In 2015-16 it was Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and even Tom Kuhnhackl helping to bring a spark to the team.

Last season it was Jake Guentzel, joining the team around this time of year and the scoring 29 goals over 65 games, including a league-leading 13 in 25 playoff games. Finding that sort of cheap production from young talent is essential for teams like the Penguins given their salary cap situation. They do not always have the flexibility under the cap to swing a major trade without giving up a major piece in return.

They might have a couple of options that could provide similar value and a similar spark this season in Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong, both selected in the 2015 draft.

Simon, who had 16 points in 20 games in the AHL before his recent recall, has been a bright spot in his first two games with the team. He recorded a pair of assists in his season debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs and eventually found himself skating on a line with Crosby. He was one of the few players that seemed to be a real threat to score in their 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier in the week and demonstrated some real skill as a playmaker.

Take, for example, this play where he set up Crosby for a one-timer opportunity in the third period.

A little better shot placement, or a goalie that wasn’t as locked in as Jonathan Bernier was that night, and we’re talking about a highlight reel goal right now.

During Wednesday’s practice Simon was skating on a line with Crosby and Guentzel and seems poised to play there on Thursday night when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights.

Following Saturday’s loss against Toronto Simon spoke about playing alongside Crosby and called it, “unbelievable,” adding that “he makes the game so much easier for you. If you lose the puck, he’s there to support you. It felt great.”

It seems, at least in the short-term, he is going to get an opportunity to keep playing on that line. It would be the third time in as many years a call-up gets that chance alongside Crosby as Simon tries to follow in the footsteps of Sheary and Guentzel.

That brings us to Sprong, the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and currently its top prospect.

After ripping apart the QMJHL the past three years (and getting a brief cup of coffee with the Penguins to start the 2015-16 season) Sprong is currently into his first full year of pro hockey. It has been a mixed bag of results at times. He has been streaky at times and he was a healthy scratch a couple of weeks ago, but he is only 20 years old, already has 14 goals in 23 games and is leading the team in both goals and total points by a pretty significant margin.

A couple of weeks ago Rutherford commented on Sprong’s development and said he had received no indication from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff that he was ready for a promotion to the NHL.

Given the aforementioned healthy scratch it is clear that his game is not perfect at this point.

Even with that being said he can still do something — or at least has the potential to do something — a lot of current players on the Penguins roster right now can not do. That, of course, is having the ability to put the puck in the net.

No matter how much the Penguins try to make him one, Sprong may not ever be a great defensive player. But you still need to score goals, and right now the Penguins have a lot of forwards in their lineup that can play a safe, responsible, defensively sound game but are providing them with absolutely zero offense.

They have Ryan Reaves playing five minutes a night providing … well … whatever it is he provides. For whatever reason, NHL teams seem to prefer that sort of one dimensional play (whether it be the dimension Reaves provides, or the play-it-safe, all defense, no offense dimension) over the one dimensional play that can change a game with a quick goal.

It would not hurt the Penguins at all to remove a Reaves or even a Carl Hagelin to insert somebody that can potentially inject some offense into the lineup. At the moment a team that has two top-lines and two fourth-lines. That is not the type of balance they need to compete for another Stanley Cup, let alone win one.

At some point before the trade deadline they are are probably going to have to address the third-line center spot from outside the organization. Even with a couple of goals in his past few games Riley Sheahan is probably not the answer there (though, he might be a decent fourth-line option).

But they can still make some in-house changes on the wings to potentially spark the offense without having to swing a major trade, something that at this point is probably easier said than done. A real look for Simon and perhaps Sprong at some point could potentially balance out the lineup a lot more than it currently is, whether it be with one of the younger players getting a look at the bottom of the lineup, or somebody else getting bumped down a spot while the youngsters get a look up top. Keep in mind the fourth line in their Stanley Cup clinching game this past spring had Matt Cullen (13 goals in 72 games), Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) and Chris Kunitz (nine goals in 71 games, and more than 250 career goals) skating on it.

They need to find that sort of balance again. Before they turn to a trade, it might be wise to see if their own in-house prospects can help deliver it.

It has worked for them before.

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.

Prior’s knack with goalies put to test in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dave Prior has a knack for fast-tracking goalies to the NHL.

The analytical and strategic mind that helped draft and develop 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in Washington was brought to Vegas with hopes he would not only work with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury but also develop the fledgling franchise’s younger netminders.

Little did Prior know his expertise would be so thoroughly put to the test during the first two months of the season.

After Fleury went down with a concussion Oct. 13 and missed the next 25 games, the expansion Golden Knights have enjoyed a historic start thanks in part to four goalies who had seen action in two combined NHL games before this season.

Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk saw most of the action, while Dylan Ferguson spent just over nine minutes between the pipes.

And though Fleury lost in his 696th career start Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in his long-anticipated return, Vegas is still in second place in the Pacific Division with 40 points, three behind the Los Angeles Kings.

”It’s been a fascinating story for me as a coach because I haven’t been challenged in this way before,” Prior said. ”I don’t think I’ve approached it any different than I have tasks in the past. You’re not usually confronted with replacing one guy after another after another. I had a lot of input into the goaltenders that we signed here and took in the expansion draft.

”The goalies didn’t let me down. I steered them in the direction, but they’ve done all the work.”

The five goalies have a combined .905 save percentage, led by Subban, whose .924 save percentage ranks eighth among all goaltenders with a minimum 10 games played. Among goalies who have played at least four games, Dansk leads the league with a .946 save percentage and Fleury is ninth at .930.

Prior said the development of his goaltending prospects began with a philosophical approach in training camp. He knew the chemistry was far from what he wanted, but he was also pleased they had bought into the system and that he had earned their trust.

”When these opportunities came, it sort of was an opportunity to accelerate the process,” Prior said. ”You don’t usually get to train guys in this environment that are in the minors. I believed they had the upside to become NHL goaltenders. I was just hoping the step they were going to be good enough to make it to No. 1 in the American (Hockey) League first, let alone be thrown into being the guy who had to play in the NHL. They worked really hard and bought in and we managed to survive the loss of Marc-Andre.”

Without Fleury, the Golden Knights were 16-8-1, including a stellar 7-1-0 against Pacific Division opponents.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said he’s left the goaltenders alone, avoiding interfering with what Prior instilled during training camp.

”I don’t know how he does it. He spends a lot of time in video with these guys, more than I’ve seen in the past,” Gallant said. ”He’s just focused on them doing the right things and playing the right way. … He wants to get the best from every goaltender and he gets the best confidence of every goaltender.”

Prior acknowledged Gallant’s hands-off approach and said it’s made it easier to work with Fleury, develop Subban and teach the younger players.

”I still have always gone about my job with the fact that I am the person sort of establishing how we’re going to play,” Prior said. ”When you’re having someone second-guess your approach, it makes it more difficult. I appreciate his hands off. I think if we were failing he may be a little more involved, but the goaltenders have done a good job.”

The Kids Are All Right: Penguins lead goalie youth movement

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By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford knows what it’s like to be a young goaltender trying to find his way in the NHL. Rutherford went through it with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1970s, thrust into action at 21 years old with a franchise in the middle of a bumpy transition.

Yet that’s where the comparisons end between Pittsburgh’s general manager and the two young men who will play a major role in determining whether the Penguins can become the first team in more than 30 years to win three straight Stanley Cup championships.

Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, both 23, have everything Rutherford didn’t when he broke into the league more than four decades ago, from a true position coach to copious amounts of technology at their fingertips to the kind of advanced training techniques (both mental and physical) that Rutherford believes has the NHL’s youngest goalie tandem in position to play a vital role in Pittsburgh’s pursuit of history.

The dark ages of the ’70s – when goaltenders were typically left to sort things out on their own – this is not.

”You didn’t really think about it (back then),” Rutherford said. ”You let in bad goals or have bad games, you were kind of on your own and you had to work your way through that. Now these guys have a lot more things to help (them).”

Beginning with Mike Buckley, who began working with Murray and Jarry when they were teenage prospects and has meticulously overseen their rise from draft picks to NHL starters. Buckley spent four years as the franchise’s goaltending development coordinator before replacing Mike Bales as goalie coach shortly after Murray backstopped the Penguins to a second straight Cup last spring.

”You win two championships and make a change, it kind of seems a little odd,” Rutherford said. ”But Buck has been the guy that’s developed both these guys right from the start, so it just made sense that he would move in.”

Other youngsters are shouldering the burden, too, including 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg (16 wins, 2.44 goals-against average), 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay (leads league in wins) and 24-year-old John Gibson in Anaheim (an All-Star last season).

But it’s Pittsburgh at the forefront of a goalie youth movement that runs counter to how things usually work in the NHL. While it’s not unusual for a team to invest in a young goaltender, there’s typically a proven backup at the ready just in case things go awry, one of the reasons the average age of an NHL goalie is 29.

That initially was the plan this season for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh brought in Antti Niemi to play behind Murray after losing Marc-Andre Fleury to expansion Vegas in June. When Niemi stumbled through a handful of forgettable starts and was released in October, Rutherford didn’t scour the waiver wire or the trade block. He called the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and told Jarry and 26-year-old Casey DeSmith to pack their bags.

”It’s one of the things that they have a timeline and they know when you’re ready and if they think you’re ready, they’ll bring you up to play,” said Jarry, who is 5-2-2 with a respectable 2.49 goals-against average this season. ”I think that’s one of the great things about Pittsburgh over the years, they saw when Matt was ready and what he could do and I think that was one of the stepping points in helping them win those Stanley Cups.”

All Murray did as a 21-year-old in the spring of 2016 was unseat the popular, occasionally erratic Fleury, taking over early on during Pittsburgh’s playoff run and leading the franchise to its fourth Cup. By last spring Murray was the entrenched starter, though Fleury filled in admirably during the first two rounds of the postseason while Murray recovered from an injury.

Yet it was Murray, and not Fleury, who was on the ice as the Penguins surged past Nashville in the 2017 Cup Final. It was Murray, not the now 33-year-old Fleury, whom Pittsburgh chose to keep last summer. And it was Jarry the Penguins stuck with when another injury recently shelved Murray for a couple of weeks.

The Penguins say their young goaltenders have considerable mental toughness, a must when playing on a team with so much offensive firepower in superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby that playing responsibly in front of its own net occasionally gets lost in the wash.

”It’s not always about technique and having your stick in the perfect position all the time,” Buckley said. ”Sometimes it’s about putting them in a position where they have to compete and battle and stay clear mentally and stay confident and put them under duress, very much like a Navy SEAL undergoes training.”

That includes things like breathing techniques they can call on during particularly stressful moments or when they’re just sort of standing there while their teammates are dominating at the other end of the rink. The tough part is getting them to do it nightly during a sprawling six-month regular season followed by what they hope is a two-month slog through the playoffs.

”I think the biggest challenge is finding consistency because they’re so young, they’re still learning because they’re so young,” said Buckley, who worked with Los Angeles star Jonathan Quick and Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask early in their careers. ”There’s a lot of ups and downs, even for an older goalie, but for a younger goalie it’s more exaggerated.”

Pittsburgh’s offseason choice will come into stark relief on Thursday when the Penguins visit Fleury and the surprising Golden Knights. Moving on from Fleury was difficult but pragmatic. The kids can play.

”To be honest with you we don’t really have a choice,” Buckley said. ”We’ve embraced that challenge … we’ll be better in the long run for it.”