Getty

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

10 Comments

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

————

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Will Blashill be part of Red Wings’ future?

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When you start the season with one win in your opening 10 games and you’re Jeff Blashill, your seat will be quite warm. Blashill’s future with the Detroit Red Wings was already in jeopardy, even going back to the end of the last season, but since that slow start they’ve won 13 of their last 21 games and taken points in 15 of them. That run has put them three points out of a wild card spot in a jumbled Eastern Conference.

With the way the Red Wings have played and the way some of their younger players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Dennis Cholowski, Tyler Bertuzzi, and a pre-injury Anthony Mantha have taken strides forward through 31 games, the hot seat talk around Blashill has quieted for now. But as he coaches in the final year of his current contract, who’s behind the Detroit bench in 2019-20 still remains a big question.

[WATCH LIVE – 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Blashill wanted his team to be “miserable” to play against on a nightly basis, hence the “sixty minutes of hell” t-shirts that the players have worn this season. The Red Wings have 10 fighting majors so far, so there’s a definite toughness bred into the current roster. They’re getting balanced scored up front, a healthy Mike Green (3 goals, 16 points) is producing like the old Mike Green, and Jimmy Howard is upping his trade value (.936 even strength save percentage) with every start.

Those are all encouraging signs for a franchise in a transition phase. The playoffs may not be the end game this season, but when you consider the Red Wings’ current state, seeing those young pieces develop shows there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There are still decisions to make which could affect the “re-tooling” of the roster. Nyquist, Howard, Niklas Kronwall, and Thomas Vanek can all become unrestricted free agents this summer. They would certainly be able to bring in assets that general manager Ken Holland can use for the future if some of them waive their no-trade/movement clauses. But those are decisions that can be made closer to the February trade deadline barring some complete drop-off.

How this season ends for the Red Wings will ultimately determine Blashill’s fate. Should Holland feel the need to make a change, it could be an easy search for a successor with Dan Bylsma already there as an assistant — an assistant that Blashill wanted after they worked together at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

For now, the progress is there under Blashill, and what once was a hot seat has now cooled considerably.

John Walton (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

————

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 Morning Skate: Unique pucks for Winter Classic; Caps’ Cup beer

Leave a comment

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• There will be some unique pucks used during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET, NBC) when the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. The biscuits used during the game and other NHL “tentpole events” this season will feaure thermochromic coatings that will change from purple to clear to indicate the puck’s temperature is above freezing, telling the officials it should be replaced. [NHL.com]

• Pierre Dorion is in unique territory trying to sign two star players — Matt Duchene and Mark Stone — to eight-year extensions. [TSN]

• Would the Philadelphia Flyers take a run to bring Sergei Bobrovsky back to town? [NBC Philadelphia]

• A Baltimore brewery is coming out with the perfect beer in honor of the Washington Capitals. Fans will soon be able to enjoy some Cup Stand Pilsner. [RMNB]

• Which Pittsburgh Penguins defense pairings are working and which ones need to change? [Pensburgh]

• The time is right for more people of color to get the call from U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. [Color of Hockey]

• Has anyone not named Rantanen, Landeskog or MacKinnon picked up the pace in production this season for the Colorado Avalanche? [Mile High Hockey]

• Carter Hutton should be back in net for the Buffalo Sabres this week after missing Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Apparently it’s not too early for headlines like this: “Pettersson building early case as greatest Canuck in team history” [Sportsnet]

• “This fragile style of play is a contagion infecting everyone on this team and needs to be cured immediately.   The first step of the cure has been accomplished:  identification of the problem.  Now for the hard part the treatment, is Coach Berube part of that cure?” [Bleedin’ Blue]

• Why the NHL Department of Player Safety needs some fixing. [TXHT Hockey]

• We’re in the midst of a pretty enjoyable NHL scoring boom. [Featurd]

• Josh Ho-Sang is back up with the New York Islanders, but Barry Trotz says he feels “zero pressure” to insert him into the lineup. [Islanders Insight]

• Things look bleak now, but with the way that Adam Boqvist is playing for the OHL’s London Knights there’s some hope down the line for the Chicago Blackhawks. [NBC Chicago]

• Calgary Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington is showing he’s here to stay in the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Finally, if you missed it over the weekend, one week after Eeli Tolvanen scored his first NHL goal for the Nashville Predators, his brother Atte became the 11th goalie in NCAA history to score:

————

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.

The Buzzer: Stamkos gets 700th point with hat trick; Howard sensational in win

Associated Press
4 Comments

Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos eclipsed the 700-point milestone in style on Monday as he scored a hat trick in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers — the ninth of his career and first since 2014.

Stamkos has 701 points now in 696 games (363 goals and 338 assists). He’s the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to reach the 700-point plateau and third in franchise history to do so after Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

2. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

Beating the Los Angeles Kings isn’t too tough a task these days, but the Kings didn’t lose this one quietly.

And a big reason why they picked up the ‘L’ was Howard, who made 42 saves. The Red Wings are lucky he did and are fortunate they were able to score on three of their 18 shots on goal.

Howard improved his record to 10-6-4 with a .923 save percentage — the latter which ranks in the top 10 among starters.

3. Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks

Meier scored twice on Monday in a 5-2 win for the Sharks against the New Jersey Devils.

Meier now has 16 goals on the season, just five back from his career high of 21 set last season. He’s also up to 30 points, which is six back of his career high of 36, which was also set last season. He had those 21 goals and 26 points in 81 games last season. He’s up to 16 goals and 30 points with 53 games to go.

He’s going to shatter last year’s numbers, it would seem.

Highlights of the night

Drew Doughty‘s ankles hurting after this one:

Stamkos’ hat trick, including one of the goals where he’s falling over and still manages to roof it:

Passing, it’s a good thing:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 2, Islanders 1

Red Wings 3, Kings 1

Lightning 6, Rangers 3

Sharks 5, Devils 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Isles’ Clutterbuck injured after punch from Pens’ Letang

MSG
9 Comments

This is a weird one, so let’s start from the beginning.

With the Penguins on the power play, Evgeni Malkin‘s one-timer deflected off Leo Komarov‘s stick and into the head of Thomas Hickey.

There was a quick bit of confusion amongst players before the referee came in to stop the play to make sure Hickey, who had blood on his visor, was OK.

While that was happening, Cal Clutterbuck, who was shadowing Kris Letang at the blue line, apparently didn’t hear the whistle or was upset that Letang, correctly, stopped playing and decided to cross-check him in the arm.

Letang, displeased with the cross-check, returned the favor with a punch that caught Clutterbuck high, sending rhe latter crumbling to the ice.

Clutterbuck struggled to get back up before skating hunched over off the ice. He was called for cross-checking on the play while Letang received a roughing minor.

Clutterbuck did not return to the game.

Hickey, meanwhile, left the game for a brief time before returning.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck