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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.

Kyle Palmieri, the other forward Ray Shero stole for the Devils

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When the New Jersey Devils hired Ray Shero to be their new general manager back in 2015 he was facing a rather daunting task of rebuilding what was, at the time, one of the league’s dullest teams. It was not a totally lousy team, but it was not a particularly good one, either.

It was coming off of its third consecutive non-playoff season, it seemed to have zero impact players anywhere in the organization (nobody had scored more than 45 points at the NHL level the year before), and it just seemed to be a team going nowhere.

In the years that followed Shero has rebuilt the Devils into a playoff team thanks in large part to a couple of significant trades (and a little luck in the draft lottery), with the most significant of those deals being the one that brought them Taylor Hall, the 2017-18 NHL MVP, from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson.

In terms of one-for-one trades it has turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL memory and has completely altered the direction of the Devils’ franchise.

It was not the only Shero trade that has gone in the Devils’ favor by an overwhelming margin.

One of his first moves with the Devils was to acquire Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2015 and a third-round draft pick in 2016. It, too, has turned out to be a steal.

At the time, Palmieri was coming off of his age 23 season and even though his overall numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page at you, he had flashed some legitimate top-line potential during his limited with the Ducks. He was consistently scoring at a15-goal pace over 82 games even though he was only playing between 11 and 14 minutes per night.

On a per minute basis he was one of the team’s most productive goal-scorers and seemed to be the type of player that was worth giving an increased role. As soon as he arrived in New Jersey he received that increased role and immediately broke out with a 30-goal season, earning himself a five-year, $23.25 million contract extension.

He has not stopped producing since.

So far this season he has been one of the driving forces behind the Devils’ 4-0-0 start, having already scored seven goals. That includes three consecutive two-goal games to open the season, and at least one goal in every game the team has played.

While there is an element of luck and circumstance to that start — including a 38.9 percent shooting percentage and the fact four of those goals have come on the power play — he has certainly established himself as a legitimate top-line player with the Devils.

The production speaks for itself. In his first three full seasons with the Devils he has scored at least 24 goals every year, while his .357 goals per game average comes out to a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

Keep in mind he scored 24 goals in only 62 games a season ago which was, once again, a 30-goal pace.

He may not be on quite the same level as Hall or get as much attention, but he has still be a significant addition to the organization, especially when you consider how little the Devils had to give up to get him.

Even if you ignore his ridiculously fast start this season he has been one of the most productive wingers in the NHL since joining the Devils.

Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 his .357 goals per game average was 32nd among all forwards in the league, and placed him directly between Max Pacioretty and Artemi Panarin, and ahead of notable players like Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski, James Neal, and Phil Kessel.

He is one of just 20 players in the league to score at least 24 goals in each of those seasons, and one of only 30 to average a 30-goal and 55-point pace over 82 games.

By pretty much every objective measure he has been one of the top-30 most productive forwards in the NHL since arriving in New Jersey. And all they had to give up was two draft picks that will probably never be as good as he is.

Going back to last season the Devils have found a pretty spectacular top line with him, Hall, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, a trio that has spent more than 350 minutes of ice-time together at 5-on-5 play and been nothing short of dominant.

During that time the Devils have controlled more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 23-11 margin.

All of them have been difference-makers for the Devils.

All they needed to acquire them was an okay second-pairing defenseman (for Hall), what amounted to two long-shot lottery tickets (for Palmieri), and a little luck from some lottery balls (Hischier).

Given where the Devils were at when Shero took over he need to pull off a little bit of magic to find some impact players and turn the team around. He somehow managed to do it twice without giving up anything of significance.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

 

‘It’s just a matter of time’ for Sidney Crosby to get going offensively

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PITTSBURGH — When you think of Sidney Crosby at his absolute best, you probably think of him as more of a playmaker and puck distributor, making his wingers better and more productive and making defenders look completely helpless along the walls or below the goal line because, well, that is what he does best.

All of that has made his ability as a goal scorer probably one of his more underrated skills, and it seems easy to forget that not only has he been a dominant goal scorer throughout his career (he is 37th all-time in goals per game and fourth among active players and players that started their careers after 1995 — the beginning of the “dead puck era”) but that he has actually finished as the league’s leading goal-scorer on two different occasions, something only 24 players in league history have done (and only 11 in the post-Original Six era). In short, on top of everything else he’s a pretty darn good goal scorer, too.

But like every other great goal scorer he is not immune to the occasional drought, and he has hit one at the start of the 2018-19 season by going the first five games without finding the back of the net. While he has had his share of slower starts throughout his career, this is only the third time in 14 years that he has gone at least five games to open a season without scoring a goal, with the 2008-09 and 2015-16 seasons being the other two.

(The 2015-16 season was the year he opened the season without a point of any kind in five games and only tallied a point in nine of his first 10 games.)

Even though the chances are starting to present themselves, the results have not yet followed.

One of the big problems has been the shots that he is taking aren’t actually getting to the net, let alone in the net. Of Crosby’s 24 total shot attempts so far only 12 have actually been on goal. Small sample size that it is, that is still only 50 percent. Just for comparisons sake, over the past five years he has managed to get more than 60 percent of his total attempts on goal. Can’t score if the puck isn’t hitting the target.

In the first period of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks he had a good look in the first period only to have Bo Horvat block it, and he had a similar miss during Saturday’s overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

Those near-misses have been happening to him so far this season.

“I thought he had some grade ‘A’ chances tonight,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday night. “He had a couple of real high-quality chances. He seemed to have a few in the last couple of games. The pucks just won’t seem to go in the net for him right now. He’s too good a player to keep off the scoresheet. I think it’s a matter of time we just have to stay with it. Just like our team, I think one of the things we are trying to encourage Sid to do is shoot the puck a little more and simplify his game. He’s just too good of a player to not break out of this. We just have to stay with it, keep working through it and not get discouraged. I think once he gets that first one things will start going in for him.”

The Penguins have tried a couple of things to get him going, from shaking up his linemates and dropping Patric Hornqvist to the third line and moving Derick Brassard, a natural center, up to the wing alongside Crosby and Jake Guentzel, to a sit-down chat and film study session between him and head coach Mike Sullivan.

So what did Sullivan and Crosby take out of that meeting, and what does the coach want to see?

More of what makes Crosby at his best: Working below the hashmarks, hanging on to pucks, and wearing defenders down.

“When Sid is at his very best, I think he’s the best player in the game underneath the hashmarks. He might be the best player that ever played underneath the hashmarks. He’s that good with the way he protects pucks and creates offense from below the goal line. We have high expectations when it comes to that aspect of his game, and his line’s game for that matter. He tends to thrive with players that are good in those areas.”

He continued: “Sid and I sat in my office yesterday after practice and we looked at a lot of the offensive zone stuff. He is such a student of the game, it sometimes gives you another vantage point. It’s a great learning opportunity to watch yourself in those situations. One of the things that I think came out of the conversation was just hanging onto pucks a little bit more. Sid is such a physically fit guy, he can wear players down by hanging onto pucks, and when they get tired, he doesn’t. He tends to have another gear because he’s so physically fit, and a lot of times that gives him a huge competitive advantage, so the longer he hangs on to pucks, and the longer his line hangs onto pucks, I think it’s a huge advantage for us, so we are trying to encourage all of our guys to force our opponents to have to defend us a little bit more.”

The Penguins haven’t yet found their game yet as a team, and that includes Crosby and the top line.

But Sullivan is right; Crosby is too good to get held off the scoresheet forever, and history does indicate that once he does get that first goal he probably will go on a run where he looks unstoppable. He followed up his five-game drought in 2008-09 with a three goal in four game stretch (that included nine total points) and when he finally got rolling in the second half of the 2015-16 season he helped carry the team to a championship.

We sometimes overreact to outlier performances at the start of a season because there is nothing else around them for any sort of perspective. You see a zero next to a player like Sidney Crosby’s name for a few games more games than you are used to and it seems like a big deal. And while there are definitely areas he and his linemates need to be better in, it’s also not something to be too overly concerned with.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Capitals strong favorites on Wednesday Night Hockey

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Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will need to beat a division rival by a healthy margin to provide betting value on Wednesday.

The Capitals are a -300 favorite on the Wednesday NHL odds with the New York Rangers, who are on the second leg of back-to-back games, coming back at +240 at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The total is set at 5.5 goals.

This is only the fourth time in the last nine seasons that the Capitals have been this deep into minus money on home ice. They are 10-3 in their last 13 games as a moneyline favorite of -250 or deeper, with six of those victories by at least two goals.

The Rangers, who are 2-4 on the season, have a quick turnaround after a 3-2 shootout win at home against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday. New York peppered Colorado with 43 shots on goal, an encouraging sign for a team that takes an offense-by-committee approach with lines led by centers Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and Brett Howden, but it is 2-6 in its last eight games when it played the previous day.

Special teams can be a X-factor in an underdog win, but the Rangers are tied for 24th in both power-play and penalty-killing efficiency. New York are 4-16 in their last 20 away games against Metropolitan Division opponents according to the OddsShark NHL Database.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had an extended outing on Tuesday, is 21-12-5 with a 2.66 goals-against average, .909 save percentage and four shutouts against Washington. Backup goalie Alexander Georgiev lasted fewer than nine minutes in his only career appearance against the Capitals last season, getting pulled after allowing three goals on six shots.

The Capitals, who are 2-2-1 on the season, have had three days off to freshen up and fine-tune their game since their last outing. In the here and now, Washington has scored just two goals over the course of two consecutive losses, but they are 10-4 in their last 14 regular-season home games against Metropolitan Division counterparts.

While Washington has elite forwards such as Ovechkin and his linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov, they are struggling to keep the puck out of their own net (3.8 goals against per game, 26th in the 31-team NHL). This could be the type of the game where they focus on becoming more shipshape in the defensive zone, especially since they have a long road trip with limited practice time starting next week. The Capitals come into the contest with the league’s fourth-best power-play, but share 24th spot in penalty killing with the Rangers.

Washington goalie Braden Holtby is 10-9-1 with a 2.42 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage and one shutout against the Rangers.

The total has gone UNDER in five of the Rangers’ last seven road games. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Capitals’ last six home games in October. The has gone UNDER in eight of the Capitals’ last 13 home games as a moneyline favorite of -250 to -500.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Senators lose prized rookie Tkachuk for one month due to torn ligament

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It seems the Ottawa Senators are not allowed to have nice things right now.

After entering the season with zero expectations due to the complete teardown of the roster over the past year, the team has actually gotten off to a better-than-expected start with a 3-2-1 record through their first six games, collecting seven out of a possible 12 points.

They have also been, perhaps even more shockingly, kind of fun to watch.

At the center of that start has been prized rookie Brady Tkachuk, the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft, having already tallied three goals and three assists in his first four games.

Now he will be sidelined for at least the next month.

Senators coach Guy Boucher confirmed on Wednesday morning that Tkachuk will be out of the lineup due to a torn ligament in his leg that he suffered in Monday’s win over the Dallas Stars when he attempted to deliver a check. According to Boucher, the injury will not require surgery.

Tkachuk is an important player for the Senators not only because he was a top-five pick and should be a centerpiece for the ongoing rebuild, but also because of what he represents from an asset management perspective.

As a result of the Matt Duchene trade at the start of the 2017-18 season the Senators had the option of sending either their 2018 first-round pick or their 2019 first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche to complete the trade. It put them in a difficult position because they knew the 2018 pick was the fourth overall selection, but given the nature of the rebuild and what the roster was expected to look like this season there was always a chance the 2019 pick could be even higher.

There was an argument to be made (one that was made here) that the Senators should probably sent the 2018 pick to Colorado.

They did not, and instead opted to keep it and select Tkachuk. As of Wednesday he is third among NHL rookies in total points with six, trailing only Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Tkachuk’s teammate, defenseman Maxime Lajoie. Both players have played in more games than Tkachuk.

Overall it has been a tough week for the NHL’s best rookies.

Along with Tkachuk’s injury, Pettersson is also sidelined for at least the next week under the NHL’s concussion protocol after he was body-slammed to the ice by Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson over the weekend, a play that resulted in a two-game suspension from the league.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.