Roberto Luongo has a slight edge on Tim Thomas through two games

It might be a bit of a stretch to hype a “matchup” between goalies Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo in these Stanley Cup finals. After all, the two netminders are really dueling with Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks shooters, not pucks sent off each others’ sticks. Technically, it’s not really about Thomas vs. Luongo; it’s Thomas vs. the Canucks against Luongo vs. the Bruins.

Then again, looking at the situation is entirely less fun, isn’t it? Ultimately, most writers and fans will perceive each goalie’s performance in association with the opposition output.

Thomas receives the most attention because the Bruins are viewed as the lesser team (and because his acrobatic, almost anarchic style tends to steal the spotlight, too). Fair or not, Luongo’s successes seem to be obscured because of the superior cast around him, letting the pitfalls and triumphs of his counterpart’s aggressiveness snatch the headlines.

Yet through two skin-tight games, these two very different goalies have given us the performances we expected.

Luongo’s path from passivity

During the off-season, I wondered if the Canucks were messing with a good thing by asking Luongo to play deeper in his crease after years of using his size further out of his net. Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild disagreed with my gut reaction and it looks like his instincts were dead-on.

Goldman shared three keys to Luongo’s success in a column for NHL.com. After explaining that decision making is the first major factor that distinguishes goalies on the elite level, Goldman discusses two other reasons Luongo is on top of his game.

2. Because Luongo plays a patient butterfly style deeper in his crease, he’s forced to make better decisions on when to employ a positional blocking save and when to make a reaction save. As a result, he has essentially gone from being a more “passive” goalie to having more “active” save selections in his game.

3. This reveals the fact that Luongo has the ability to balance his skill-set with an equal number of blocking and reacting skills. This balance, which could be considered like having an ambidextrous mind, is crucial to the read-and-react butterfly style that continues to be incorporated in today’s successful and elite NHL goaltender.

The danger of doubting Thomas

On Boston’s end, Thomas sprawls and flails, leaving us gasping for air as he stops pucks that seem predestined for twine. We cringe at his rare – but occasionally fatal – lapses, perhaps ignoring the fact that his style is the clearest “live by the sword, die by the sword” paradigm in the increasingly homogenous profession that is NHL netminding.

Those two last minute goals may end up crushing the Bruins, but this team – and more precisely, this goalie – rolls with punches without taking much time to flinch. Thomas didn’t get to the NHL by giving up easily, an attitude that is revealed every time he makes another downright irrational stop.

Goldman points out some of the high points of his Game 2.

Thomas’ absorption rate was through the roof in Game 2. This ability to collapse and condense his upper body in order to “soak up” shots above the waist was very impressive. It was a visible sign that he was focused and relaxed for Game 2. It also proved just how well he mentally prepared from the end of Game 1 to the start of Saturday night’s showdown. Aside from Alex Burrows’ first goal, no pucks got through Thomas — not even deflections or tipped shots.

Decision making has been the difference so far

Ultimately, Luongo’s more economical game meant less highlight reel saves through the first two contests, but also less back-breaking goals allowed. I think it’s wrong to badmouth Thomas for being who he is – especially since it works most of the time – but those little mistakes have been the difference so far. Goldman agrees on that point.

… I feel that Luongo has a slight edge on Thomas in regards to their decision-making in the Stanley Cup Final. Luongo has made the more conservative decisions so far, and that has proved to be more successful, especially in light of Thomas’ decision in overtime of Game 2.

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Of course, two games is a small sample and Thomas seems to get better as the games get bigger. We’ll see which goalie wins Round 3 tonight.

Golden Knights enjoying ride to Stanley Cup Final, but remain unsatisfied

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.

So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.

This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?

***

The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.

When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?

“I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December. 

A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.

“We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”

Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.

***

“There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.

The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality. 

Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.

“It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

PHT’s Three Stars: Reaves’ goal helps Golden Knights reach Cup Final

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1st Star: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

A year ago, “Ryan Reaves scored the goal that helped send the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final” is totally the sentence we all expected to read in May 2018. Well, here we are after Vegas eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 with a 2-1 victory.

2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Fleury continued his march toward the Conn Smythe trophy with a 31-save effort as he helped ensure his chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup.

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

3rd Star: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

After a tough couple of games, Hellebuyck did all he could to keep the Jets in Game 5. He finished with 30 saves, including  a pair late in the third period that helped keep the Jets’ deficit to one goal.

Highlight of the Day:

Thank you, Deryk Engelland, for touching the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

Factoid of the Day:

Monday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Lightning lead series 3-2)

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final

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Want to capture the unlikely story of the Vegas Golden Knights advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their first season? Consider that Ryan Reaves was the person who scored the goal to punch their ticket.

(It’s OK if you need a second just to stare at your screen in disbelief.)

Remarkably, the Golden Knights only needed one chance to dispatch the Winnipeg Jets, who sported the NHL’s second-best record (and who eliminated the top team, Nashville, in the previous round). With a 2-1 win in Game 5, Vegas beat Winnipeg 4-1 in the series.

[PHT’s Three Stars.]

Quite a few storylines carried over from earlier games in the 2018 Western Conference Final.

As usual, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s work was just about spotless. Fleury won his fourth consecutive game, and he needed to make 30+ saves for the fourth time in a row as well, stopping 31 out of 32 shots.

It says a lot about how excellent Fleury has been that Connor Hellebuyck‘s absorbed all sorts of heat during this series, as Hellebuyck’s rarely allowed bad goals, even amid relative struggles during this third round. Hellebuyck made some key saves down the stretch of Game 5, but it wasn’t enough.

Game 5 felt a little different than Winnipeg’s last few losses because Fleury didn’t need the same Herculean effort during the third period. You can get away with making a bad joke about the Jets running out of gas/fuel, because at least compared to previous pushes, it seemed like Winnipeg sputtered a bit after that Reaves tally.

Winnipeg had generated a shots on goal advantage for six straight periods (the last two of Game 3, all three in Game 4, and the first in Game 5), yet the two teams were tied at 32 shots on goal by the end of this one, as Vegas took the final 40 minutes from that standpoint. You wonder if Fleury’s excellent play truly “broke” Winnipeg, at least once it became clear that they’d need to fight back from another deficit following that Reaves-winner.

The Jets were dominant at times during this series, yet it’s sobering for this mighty group to realize that they didn’t just drop four games in a row … they also failed to grab a single lead after Game 1.

Speaking of remarkable stats, consider this: the Golden Knights still haven’t faced elimination during this Cinderella run. They swept the Kings in the first round, beat the Sharks in six games, and then passed by the Jets in five. Now they’ll get to watch Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to see if the Tampa Bay Lightning advance or if the Washington Capitals force a Game 7 (thus giving Vegas a nice rest advantage, as well).

The Golden Knights may root a little extra for that East series to go the distance if Fleury’s a bit hampered by injury issues, as some speculated during Game 5. Fleury wasn’t bothered enough to allow Winnipeg to get back in the contest, and chances are, he’s not too worried about that right now.

Really, the biggest concern is trying to top Elliotte Friedman’s joke:

Ante up.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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 Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals TV Schedule

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The conference finals are now set with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals meeting in the East and the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets facing off in the West. The round to determine who will play for the 2018 Stanley Cup will begin Friday.

Here’s the full Round 3 schedule:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals (Lightning lead series 3-2)

Friday, May 11, 8pm: Capitals 4, Lightning 2
Sunday, May 13, 8pm: Capitals 6, Lightning 2
Tuesday, May 15, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
Thursday, May 17, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
Saturday, May 19, 7:15pm: Lightning 3, Capitals 2
Monday, May 21, 8pm: Lightning @ Capitals | NBCSN
*Wednesday, May 23, 8pm: Capitals @ Lightning | NBCSN

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets (Golden Knights win series 4-1)

Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Jets 4, Golden Knights 2
Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 1
Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Golden Knights 4, Jets 2
Friday, May 18, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 2
Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights 2, Jets 1

MORE:
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.