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Murray returns, will back up Fleury tonight

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Pittsburgh will have a familiar face on the bench for tonight’s massive Game 7 in Washington.

Matt Murray, who hasn’t dressed since suffering a lower-body injury during warmup ahead of Game 1 in the Columbus series, has been declared healthy and will serve as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s backup tonight, per Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan.

Murray, who backstopped the Pens to the Stanley Cup last spring, hadn’t participated with the team until today’s morning skate, replacing Tristan Jarry in the process.

Prior to today, Murray had been skating on his own.

Fleury has fared well in the 22-year-old’s absence, going 7-4 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.78 GAA. That said, the last two games have been rough. Fleury’s allowed nine goals on 58 shots, though it’s tough to blame him for a lot of them. Pittsburgh’s defense has been decimated by injury, most notably by the absences of Kris Letang and Trevor Daley.

As a result, the Pens iced a six-man unit of Justin Schultz, Olil Maatta, Ron Hainsey, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin and Chad Ruhwedel in Game 6. Schultz led all blueliners in TOI, with 22:13, while Dumoulin finished second at 21:15.

The Penguins are going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to steal one more game

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PITTSBURGH — When looking at the results it is easy to conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been pretty evenly matched through the first six games of their second-round playoff series.

Both teams have won three games.

Both teams have scored 18 goals.

In the two areas that matter the most, it is exactly what you might expect from the two best teams in the league during the regular season.

Yet when you watch the teams play against one another on the ice, and when you look at all of the underlying numbers (mostly the shots on goal and the shot attempts), it is clear that the Capitals have completely dictated the pace of the series and have been the better team.

And not by a little, either.

Hockey is a funny sport, and when you put an entire season down to a best-of-seven series, crazy things can happen that can completely flip everything upside down. When that happens, it usually results in swift overreactions that either see a great team get gutted far too soon, or an ordinary team get saddled with unrealistic expectations and then face the disappointment that comes from not meeting them.

Nothing can do that quite like goaltending can.

Through the first four games of this series (when the Penguins held a seemingly commanding 3-1 lead) that is exactly what was happening.

Marc-Andre Fleury was standing on his head in the Penguins’ net and masking all of the flaws that existed in front of him defensively. In the Washington net, Braden Holtby was off of his game as the Penguins were opportunistic and capitalized on the chances the Capitals presented them.

It was every postseason nightmare the Washington Capitals have experienced over the past few years. Play well. Do everything right. Run into a goalie that plays out of his mind and ruins everything.

It was also pretty much a continuation of what we saw from the Penguins in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was worth asking if they could continue to scratch out wins playing that way (and we did ask it).

It was basically going to come down to Fleury’s ability to keep stealing them games because right now he is probably the single biggest reason they are still playing hockey this season. If he doesn’t hold down the fort in pretty much every game the Penguins came out flat in, or post a .930 save percentage, who knows what direction their postseason goes in. Probably not a good one.

He has, quite simply, bailed them out.

If they are going to play beyond Wednesday night and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row and continue their defense of the Stanley Cup, they are almost certainly going to need him to do it one more time.

Given the way this series has been played, there really doesn’t seem to be another path for the Penguins to win it. Anything else would require them reaching a level they have not yet shown they are capable of this postseason as currently constructed.

The problem is simple: Without Kris Letang the Penguins are missing arguably their most important player. He is not only one of the five or six best defensemen in the entire league, he is one of the best players in the entire NHL regardless of position. On their way to the Stanley Cup one year ago he played, quite literally, half of every playoff game and did so at a level that only a handful of other players are capable of.

Without him they are not only lacking that presence, they have had to see players that are in the lineup get over-extended into roles they are not really cut out for or used to playing. Instead of having Letang play the most minutes — and the most meaningful minutes — their ice-time leader this postseason has been 36-year-old Ron Hainsey. With all due respect to Hainsey, a fine NHL defenseman for 13 seasons, he is not Kris Letang.

The Penguins’ ability to exit their zone has been a constant issue this postseason. They are unable to make plays through the neutral zone. The offense tends to fizzle out quickly on the rare occasion they do get into the offensive zone. It has shown on the shot chart where the Penguins have been bleeding an almost unheard of number of shots against and have been the worst possession team in the playoffs.

It is not the way they won the Stanley Cup one year ago, and it has put a ton of pressure on their goaltender to be at his best every single night.

“Obviously I think our team is at its best when it’s in the offensive zone,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan following Monday’s game.

“Three games ago you guys were praising our team for our counter-attack. The reality is we are trying to keep our eye on the right ball. We know how we play. There are areas we have addressed almost daily, certainly game in and game out, where we know we can be better as a group and we work on that. Tonight is no different. It did not go the way we wanted it to go. We have to have a short memory, we have to go back to work tomorrow, we have to go back to Game 7.”

When they are not on the power play or getting an opportunity on a counter-attack, they are simply not creating much in the way of offense.

That all starts with the defense.

So far, the Capitals have feasted on that with a dominating territorial edge that they are finally starting to be rewarded for. There is little reason to believe they will not continue to have that edge in Game 7 because they have had it for pretty much every minute of the previous six games.

This isn’t to say that the Capitals are guaranteed to win their third game in a row (they are not), or that the Penguins have no chance on Wednesday (they do).

But that chance is going to rest almost entirely on Fleury being able to do something he has already done multiple times this postseason for the Penguins: Steal a game for them.

PHT Morning Skate: Fleury covers Niskanen’s name on the back of his mask

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Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Niskanen were teammates in Pittsburgh for a couple of years, but whatever relationship they have/had has officially been put on hold. Fleury, who has the names of some of his current and former teammates on the back of his mask, taped over Niskanen’s name. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, Niskanen knocked Sidney Crosby out of Game 3 with a cross-check to the head. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

Brendan Smith moved from Detroit to New York at the trade deadline, and he’s liked his experience in his new city. Smith is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, but it sounds like he’s willing to stick around the “Big Apple”. (New York Daily News)

–New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman is a huge fan of the New Jersey Devils, and he recently reached out to Ray Shero after the Devils won the draft lottery. “Listen, the way all sports are, you’re up, then you’re forced down over time. We’re over here with the Yankees going through our rebound, we hope and we think. We’re on a good trajectory and I think the Devils are, too.” (NJ.com)

–The Washington Capitals are on the verge of being eliminated from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs after last night’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps came back to tie the game after trailing 2-0, but it simply wasn’t meant to be. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–This could be a huge off-season for the Carolina Hurricanes. The ‘Canes have plenty of draft picks and a lot of cap space, so it’s the perfect time to use that to acquire a big-name player or two this summer. “Pieces need to come in, in order to close that gap. The reality is, if we think guys from Charlotte are going to come in and close that gap? It’s not happening, in my opinion as the coach.” (Charlotte Observer)

–Now that the draft lottery has come and gone, Sean McIndoe looks at five games that could have changed the outcome of the 2017 lottery. For example, on Jan. 15, the Canucks lost an OT decision to the Devils. A win in that game would have moved Vancouver ahead of New Jersey in the final standings. That would have resulted in Vancouver getting the top pick in the draft. (The Hockey News)

–Even though his goal in last night’s game was a little fluky, Jake Guentzel‘s post-season run has been pretty remarkable:

 

Video: Fleury, Hornqvist combine for incredible, desperate save

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Game 3 of the Capitals – Penguins has been chaotic. It’s been wild enough that it’s easy to lose track of how outstanding both Braden Holtby and Marc-Andre Fleury have been.

So far, it sure seems like Holtby’s back to his elite form. He’s currently pitching a shutout through two periods, though he did get some help from a goalie interference call (that was probably accurate).

Fleury has been beaten once on an odd bounce in the first period, but overall, he’s been absolutely fantastic in Game 3. He combined with Patric Hornqvist with what easily ranks as one of the best saves of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

You can watch it in video from above and in the following GIF:

Fleury and the Penguins experienced an extreme close call there, while the Capitals got lucky at least once themselves:

Some 1-0 games through 40 minutes can come down to tight defense and tepid offense as much as anything else. In this case, the goalies have been a huge reason why it’s been so low-scoring.

Fleury could be good option for Flames … or even Flyers

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Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-1 with a .936 save percentage in these playoffs. The 32-year-old goalie is proving he can still play at a high level. He outperformed Sergei Bobrovsky in the first round, and now he’s outperforming Braden Holtby.

But the reality remains — the Penguins can only protect one goalie in the expansion draft, and Matt Murray is the future in Pittsburgh.

In other words, Fleury is still likely to be traded this offseason, no matter how well he’s playing right now. He only has two years left on his contract, with a cap hit of $5.75 million.

And that lack of term may actually be attractive to some suitors.

Take a team like Calgary. The Flames have some young goalies in the system, but nobody under contract to bridge the gap. They could always go out and sign Ben Bishop on July 1, but they’d probably have to give him big money and term. And then, what if Bishop doesn’t work out? Brian Elliott didn’t work out, and Bishop is not coming off the best season.

Or — and wouldn’t this be interesting — take a team like Philadelphia. The Flyers are in a similar predicament to Calgary. They have some good, young goalies in the organization, led by 23-year-old Anthony Stolarz. But are they willing to go into next season with a tandem of Stolarz and Michal Neuvirth? The former is still pretty inexperienced, and the latter had an .891 save percentage in 2016-17.

If you think about it, getting Fleury out of Pittsburgh would be sort of like the Flyers getting Valtteri Filppula out of Tampa Bay.

Filppula is only signed through next season.

“On July 1, you don’t get a player like this on a one-year deal,” GM Ron Hextall said of Filppula. “The money, you won’t get this type of player on a one-year deal, which was attractive to us.”

Which begs the question — could you get a goalie like Fleury on a two-year deal?

Anyway, just something to think about. The Penguins and their fans probably aren’t too focused on the offseason right now, but other teams — and let’s not forget about Dallas — certainly are.

Related: Scott Darling trade ‘worth the risk’ for Hurricanes