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Marc-Andre Fleury is playing the best hockey of his life

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After their overtime win in San Jose on Monday night, the Vegas Golden Knights are just two wins away from reaching the Western Conference Final. The win was aided, in large part, by another spectacular performance from starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury as he held off an early Sharks onslaught, stopped 39 out of 42 shots on the night, and made one of the best saves of the playoffs when he absolutely robbed Logan Couture with this stunning glove save in overtime.

It was only a few minutes later that William Karlsson wired a rocket of a shot off the rush just under the crossbar, beating Martin Jones to give Vegas the 4-3 win.

For Fleury, it was his latest great performance in a playoff run that has the makings of being one of the best of his career. He already has three shutouts in seven games, has allowed only 10 goals, and has already stopped at least 35 shots in a game three different times.

When Vegas went into the expansion draft process and began building its roster from scratch it was pretty obvious that it was going to end up getting a legitimate No. 1 goalie with its selection from Pittsburgh. It was also pretty obvious that given the ages, contract situations, and long-term outlook for both players that the Penguins were going to try and direct Fleury Vegas’ way, preferring to keep the younger, cheaper and back-to-back Stanley Cup winning Matt Murray. Almost immediately Fleury became the face of the NHL’s newest team and was expected to, at the very least, give it a chance to compete on most nights. But along with everything else unfolding with the Golden Knights this season there probably wasn’t anybody that expected him to be this good.

Quite simply, Fleury is playing the absolute best hockey of his career right now.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Fleury’s career arc is a strange one to look back on because it’s had a little bit of everything over the past 15 years. Potential. Hope. Success. Devastating lows. Redemption. And then a new beginning where hope and potential were again focal point.

When it all began, he was an 18-year-old rookie — the rare goalie to go No. 1 overall in the draft — that was supposed to be a foundational piece for what was a bad, rebuilding team. Early in his career he delivered on that potential by helping to backstop the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter.

After that, however, things kind of fell apart for him in a series of playoff meltdowns between 2010 and 2014 that helped torpedo some potential lengthy playoff runs in Pittsburgh and make him more of a league-wide joke than anything else. It wasn’t all because of his play, but his play was a big a part of it. Between 2010 and 2015, his .895 postseason save percentage was 20th out of 22 goalies that appeared in at least 20 games, finishing ahead of only Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov. At one point he lost his starting job in the playoffs to Tomas Vokoun. But after a change in goalie coaches and work with a sports psychologist, his playoff performances — as well as his regular season performances — in recent years started to improve. Even then things had a way of working against him.

An injury at the end of the 2015-16 season cost him his starting job as Murray stepped in and played brilliantly on his way to a Stanley Cup. In 2016-17, he had a chance for redemption when the situation was reversed and an injury to Murray — who had taken over as the team’s starter — allowed Fleury to regain his starting job through the first two rounds where he was probably the biggest reason the Penguins were able to continue advancing. It was pretty much the exact opposite of the previous five playoff runs in Pittsburgh where the goaltending was sinking what was often times an otherwise good team.

Murray eventually returned, regained his starting spot, and closed out the final two rounds on the way to another Stanley Cup. His career in Pittsburgh ended with him handing the Stanley Cup to the guy that replaced him.

And with that, a new beginning in Vegas waiting for him where he would again be a foundational cornerstone for what was supposed to be, for now, a bad, building team. In this case, he was quite literally, one of the first pieces of the team. At first, the success or failure of Vegas in the first few years of its existence always seemed like it was going to hinge on Fleury’s ability to carry an expansion team that would be short on talent. That is, of course, until we realized just how badly many of the NHL’s other general managers were going to screw up the expansion draft process and help build an immediate powerhouse. But even with Vegas having far more firepower offensively — and a shockingly better blue line — than anybody could have reasonable expected Fleury has still be a significant part of the success.

Even though he has been a part of three Stanley Cup winning teams, I’ve always argued that the best hockey of his career before this season came during the 2007-08 season, the year the Penguins actually lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Detroit. Without him, that team probably wouldn’t have sniffed the Final that season and given the way that series was played on the ice it was something of a small miracle that they actually won two games in the series (they were outshot 222-142 and the only game they topped 25 shots on goal was a triple overtime game … where they were outshot 58-34. It was a one-sided series).

That was always the best hockey he ever played.

Until this season.

[Related: Conn Smythe Power Rankings]

First, the numbers are not only among the best in the league, they are also the best of his career. During the regular season he finished with a .927 save percentage that was fourth among all NHL goalies that appeared in at least 30 games. His even-strength percentage of .931 was sixth in the league. He has never finished higher in either category in any previous season.

He has continued that play into the playoffs.

When you combine his regular season and playoff numbers — as of Tuesday — he is currently sporting a .932 save percentage in his first 51 games this season. That includes seven shutouts.

Just looking back at his career he has never had a season where his total numbers (regular season and playoffs) were this good. The only year that comes close was the aforementioned 2007-08 season.

Here are his five best.

Again, outside of that 2007-08 performance there really isn’t another one on his resume that compares to this one.

On one hand you could point to this season, and especially that .960 postseason save percentage, and accurately point out that it is an unsustainable level of production. An incredible hot streak that will at some point end with an ugly regression to the mean. You would not be wrong to argue that. It will happen eventually. But even if he regresses a bit you can not take away the fact that he has re-written his postseason story in recent years. Since he was benched for Vokoun in the first-round of the 2013 playoffs, his postseason save percentage has been the third-best in the NHL over that stretch. This is not just a one-year thing for him.

You also can not take away what has already happened. He still had to stop those pucks this year and this postseason. He has stopped them better than just about any goalie in the league this season and better than he ever has in his career.

The fact it is happening this season, on this team, in this situation, only adds to it. If he backstops an expansion team anywhere near the Stanley Cup Final — and they absolutely could get there, and they absolutely could win it — there will not be anything in his career that matches it.

Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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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.

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

Carolina Hurricanes
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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.