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After ‘breakout’ year in AHL, Fleury ready to crack ‘Canes lineup

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If it feels like we’ve written about Haydn Fleury being ready to make the leap before… well, it’s because we have.

Quite a few times.

There are reasons for this, of course. Fleury was the second defenseman off the board at the 2014 draft, taken six spots behind No. 1 overall selection Aaron Ekblad. He’s just one of two top-15 picks from his draft year yet to play in the NHL — the fifth overall selection, Isles prospect Michael Dal Colle, is also waiting to make the leap — and he’s already two years behind fellow ‘Canes blueliner Noah Hanifin, who was taken in the ’15 draft and just wrapped his sophomore NHL campaign.

Progress has been a slow process. But now, it finally sounds like Fleury’s ready to break through.

“He’s had, in my opinion, a breakout year,” AHL Charlotte coach Ulf Samuelsson said this week, per the Observer. “He’s been one of our most consistent players. He’s taken a step maybe each month and the last month has made the biggest step because he’s now using his size.

“He’s hard to play against. He’s always been good joining the rush, jumping up, but he has turned into a really good two-way defenseman.”

After a lengthy junior career in Red Deer, Fleury played his first season of pro hockey in Charlotte this season, and acquitted himself nicely. He raced up seven goals and 26 points in 69 games and, as per Samuelsson’s above quote, has used his 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame to his advantage.

Some might look at Fleury’s slow progression to the pro game, and consider him a draft bust. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

‘Canes GM Ron Francis has taken a more deliberate approach with Fleury, 20, and another promising blueliner, 21-year-old Roland McKeown. Both were knocking on the door of making the Carolina roster to start the year, but Francis opted to send them back to Charlotte for more seasoning.

One might wonder why Francis opted to slow play these two, when Hanifin was fast-tracked to the NHL at 18. The answer might not lie with Fleury and McKeown, but rather the group as a whole — Carolina had one of the youngest bluelines in the league this year, featuring Hanifin (20), Jaccob Slavin (22), Brett Pesce (22), Ryan Murphy (24) and Justin Faulk (25).

Murphy, however, could be lost to Las Vegas in the upcoming expansion draft, resulting in an open roster spot. And journeyman Matt Tennyson, who appeared in 45 games on defense for the ‘Canes this season, is a pending UFA.

All this points to Fleury making his long-awaited NHL debut in the fall.

Blue Jackets baffle Fleury, Crosby; push Penguins to Game 5

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Did the Columbus Blue Jackets get back in the groove, even in falling behind 3-0 in their series, considering the four goals they scored against Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 3? Either way, they really made “The Flower” wilt on Tuesday.

Granted, Columbus didn’t beat Pittsburgh 5-4 in Game 4 due to Fleury’s struggles alone.

Instead, they played exactly like you’d picture a team would need to play to fight off a sweep: aggressive while shaking off setbacks.

Stream Penguins vs. Blue Jackets on NBC Sports

Early in the second period, the Blue Jackets went up 3-0, only to see the Penguins enter the final frame down a single goal. You could argue that a more fragile team might have fallen apart, especially against an opponent as dangerous as the Penguins.

Instead, the Blue Jackets just kept pushing forward.

William Karlsson made it 4-2 just 27 seconds into the third, a huge goal that prompted fun hair-flip GIFs. Yet … there was another opportunity for frustration to take over when Tom Kuhnhackl shrunk the lead to one goal again about 90 seconds later.

Again, the Blue Jackets just kept fighting. Boone Jenner made it 5-3 mere minutes later on what would ultimately stand as the game-winner.

(Yes, the Penguins scored once again … but too late this time around.)

It was also a rare rough night for Sidney Crosby, who failed to generate a shot on goal and suffered a -3 rating. Three assists from Phil Kessel and two from Evgeni Malkin just weren’t enough to knock the Blue Jackets out.

While Fleury faces some questions after allowing four and five goals in Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky breathes a sigh of relief … though you wonder if there’s still some self-doubt. Merely looking at this stat could make Bobrovsky and others shudder.

They can work on that in Pittsburgh for Game 5. At least tonight they finally won a playoff game in regulation – and stayed alive in the series – on Tuesday.

It’s a long ride to getting the most important first on their minds (first Blue Jackets comeback from a 3-0 deficit), but they took that initial leap tonight.

Fleury ‘seems to stop the hard ones and maybe let in the easy ones,’ says Hartnell

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To hear Scott Hartnell explain it, Columbus doesn’t see much of a difference between facing Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury.

“Potato, Po-tah-to, both Murray and Fleury are good,” Hartnell said, per the Blue Jackets website. “(The change) doesn’t cause any havoc for us. Everyone on this team has faced Fleury a bunch of times. He’s won Stanley Cups.

“He seems to stop the hard ones and maybe let in the easy ones.”

Stream Penguins vs. Blue Jackets on NBC Sports

One would assume Hartnell’s comments are (partially) in reference to the 2012 Penguins-Flyers series, in which Hartnell was playing for Philly. Fleury was ventilated for 26 goals on 131 shots over six games, finishing with an ugly .834 save percentage.

But that was then. This is now.

Fleury was thrust into the starting role just prior to Wednesday’s series opener, after Murray went down during warmup with a lower-body injury. It’s believed Murray re-aggravated a groin injury suffered late in the regular season, and it’s serious enough to keep him out of the lineup entirely — Fleury will start tonight’s Game 2, with AHL recall Tristan Jarry serving as the backup.

Fleury was excellent in Game 1, stopping 31 of 32 shots, including all 16 faced in a very busy opening period. Matt Calvert ended his shutout bid with a marker midway through the final frame.

Columbus said the goal for tonight’s tilt is to make life even busier for Fleury.

“We got to focus on getting more pucks to the net,” Brandon Dubinsky said. “We need to get more pucks to the blues and make it hard on Fleury by trying to generate some rebounds.”

As for Hartnell — well, this isn’t the first time he’s had a quip about the Penguins. Prior to the series starting, he was asked if Pittsburgh had matured over the last few years.

“Maybe Sid [Crosby],” Hartnell replied, per the Post-Gazette. “He’s not whining all the time.”

Puck drop tonight is at 7 p.m. from PPG Paints. You can catch the game on NHL Network, or stream it here.

Pens announce Fleury as Game 2 starter, Jarry to back up

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The injury that knocked Matt Murray out of Pittsburgh’s series-opening win against Columbus will keep him out of Game 2 as well.

And perhaps even longer.

On Thursday, the Pens announced that Marc-Andre Fleury — who, after Murray was hurt in warmup, stopped 31 of 32 shots in yesterday’s 3-1 win — will start Game 2 on Friday at PPG Paints.

Penguins vs. Blue Jackets: Stream on NBC Sports

Fleury will be backed up by AHL recall Tristan Jarry. Murray didn’t practice on Thursday, nor did he have a dressing room stall at the club’s practice facility in Cranberry. Per the Post-Gazette, it’s believed Murray re-aggravated a groin injury suffered in his last outing, a 7-4 win over New Jersey last week.

Though Murray sat for the final two games of the regular season, he was declared fit enough to be Pittsburgh’s playoff starter. Head coach Mike Sullivan declined to discuss the severity of Murray’s injury, or a potential timetable for return.

Fleury, Kessel lift Penguins over Blue Jackets in Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were probably pretty happy that they ended up keeping Marc-Andre Fleury on their roster this season because they needed him on Wednesday night in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Fleury was a late entry into the starting lineup on Wednesday after Matt Murray went down with a lower body injury in warmups and ended up stopping 31 of 32 shots in a 3-1 win over the Blue Jackets.

Even though the Penguins ended up winning by two goals this was far from a cakewalk game for Fleury and the Penguins, especially early on. The Penguins came out completely flat in the first period, playing what was perhaps one of their worst periods of the season and allowing Columbus to take 16 of the game’s first 19 shots.

Penguins vs. Blue Jackets: Stream on NBC Sports

The actual play on the ice was every bit as lopsided as that shot differential would indicate, and it seemed as if the absence of Kris Letang was finally going to take its toll on the Penguins’ defense. Their breakouts were a mess, they couldn’t get out of their own zone, and Columbus was completely dictating the play.

Fleury was able to keep the door shut long enough for the Penguins to regroup between periods and come out flying in what would turn out to be a three-goal second period.

“The fact we have flower [Fleury] and Matt, I think gives us a comfort level because we know they are both No. 1 goalies,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan after the game. “I have said to them all along we are going to need both of you. We’ve used them both all year long.”

Sullivan had no update on Murray’s status after the game, only saying they will have more information on Thursday.

Phil Kessel, once again at his best in the playoffs, was the driving force behind the offense in the second period when he set up Bryan Rust for the Penguins’ first goal, and then scored one of his own just two-and-a-half minutes later on an absolute rocket of a wrist shot from just inside the left faceoff dot that Sergei Bobrovsky seemed to have no chance on.

Nick Bonino added another goal later in the period after pouncing on a loose rebound in front of Bobrovsky.

This was really a tale of different games. After getting outshot 16-3 in the first period, the Penguins were able to completely turn the tables on the Blue Jackets in the second and third periods and finish the game with a 26-18 edge over the second and third periods.