‘Flower’ blossoms: Fleury back to being great playoff goalie

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Anyone who has played with Marc-Andre Fleury can tell he’s dialed in by watching his mannerisms.

Last year, he rubbed the shaft of his stick after making a save with it on Alex Ovechkin. This year, he continued a career-long tradition of rubbing the post as a sign of appreciation for keeping a puck out.

”That’s when you know he’s in the zone,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.

Fleury is in one of the best zones of his career in the playoffs with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have followed up a magical inaugural season with a trip to the Western Conference final. The goaltending of Fleury is the biggest reason they’ve gotten this far and is a continuation of his remarkable playoff reputation rehabilitation.

After taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and winning it all in 2009, Fleury lost four of the next five series he played and each postseason posted a save percentage under .900. He has since gotten his groove back, helping the Penguins win the Cup again a year ago, and now leads the NHL playoffs with a 1.53 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts.

”I don’t think it was anything physically that he changed,” former Penguins teammate and current Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It was all confidence-driven. He’s always been a guy who’s really competitive and really loose at the same time. I think it was just confidence. I think he needed a fresh start. Maybe he just needed a clean slate, and you perform better when you’re more appreciated.”

It’s impossible not to appreciate the impact ”Flower” has made in the desert as the face of a new franchise as he went 29-13-4 with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pacific Division-winning Vegas. The fresh start might have rejuvenated Fleury more than a decade into his career, but his bounce-back in becoming a great playoff goalie again is six years in the making.

The low point came in 2012. Fleury allowed 26 goals over six games to Philadelphia in a first-round exit. The next playoffs, backup Tomas Vokoun started more games, and it was fair to wonder if Fleury had lost it.

”You learn from losing,” Fleury said Wednesday. ”You learn from tough times and pressure and stuff like that. It made me a better goalie from it.”

Now-Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was there for some of the struggles but didn’t level them all on Fleury. By 2014, he noticed a different goalie.

”There was a period of time there where maybe (it was) not entirely his fault, a few things went wrong and it snowballed on him and he had a tough go there, I think, mentally for a couple springs,” Niskanen said. ”But by the time of my last year there he was really good again.”

The scars of another second-round exit led to more blame for Fleury, who was scapegoated for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not doing more after the Cup in 2009.

”Sometimes it’s the way your team plays in front of you,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who beat Fleury with the Rangers in playoff series in 2014 and 2015. ”Sometimes, like any other player, you might have a bad series or a bad playoffs and I think for a goalie if you have that, people are going to be all over you.”

Following a forgettable first-round loss to Hagelin and the Rangers in 2015, Fleury had one of his best regular seasons. But he was nevertheless replaced as Pittsburgh’s playoff starter by Matt Murray on the way to the Cup in 2016.

Before he played a substantial role in the Penguins’ second consecutive title run, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Vegas in the expansion draft. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose 2009 Capitals lost to Fleury in the second round, said Dave Prior was insistent on adding Fleury because the veteran goaltending coach felt there was more improvement to be made in his game.

”He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. ”He was excited and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been. We like the calming effect he has on this team. When he plays, he’s really good when you need him the most. Needless to say you don’t get to the third round in this league unless you got a goaltender that’s playing well.”

Fleury will be playing in the third round for the fifth time in his career, a testament to the 33-year-old’s willingness to adjust as he has gotten older, including eating the right food, training meticulously and allowing his body to recover.

”When you’re young, you eat whatever, you never hurt, I never stretched, I could do the splits, it was easier,” Fleury said. ”Now I got to do more to maintain that flexibility and comfortness in the net. The older you get, things tend to linger around longer and you got to find ways to feel loose and feel good when games come around.”

Players are rarely worried about Fleury being tight. Even when Murray took his starting job, Fleury didn’t let it affect his mood at the rink.

”For him it definitely wasn’t easy because I’m sure he knew how he good he is and everybody else knew how good he is,” Maatta said. ”He still kind of kept showing up smiling and being an awesome teammate all the time even though he was probably in a tough spot.”

The laughs during the bad times have endeared Fleury to teammates who watch his playoff success with Vegas with great joy.

”Cares about the group, has fun at the rink, competitive as heck, cares about the right things,” Niskanen said. ”It’s not surprising at all that he’s done as well as he has there. It’s surprising how well the team has done but not him specifically. He’s a really good goalie and a perfect fit for them.”

Freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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We know the Boston Bruins are going to be hosting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and now we know when that game will take place.

We just need to wait and find out which team will be facing them.

The NHL announced the schedule for the 2019 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night and the series will begin on Monday, May 27, in Boston, where the Bruins will play the winner of the Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.

If there is a Game 7 necessary, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011.

The Sharks and Blues are hoping to win for the first time ever.

The Sharks most recently reached the Stanley Cup Final during the 2015-16 season (where they lost in six games to the the Pittsburgh Penguins), while the Blues have not reached it since the 1970 season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series (All times ET, subject to change).

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC

*If necessary

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.

Sharks blown out by Blues and now have major injury concerns

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Whatever luck the San Jose Sharks had on their side earlier this postseason completely disappeared on Sunday in what was a complete nightmare of a performance against the St. Louis Blues.

Not only did they get thoroughly dominated in a 5-0 loss, but they had a terrible day from an injury standpoint and will be going into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN) facing elimination with a roster that will almost certainly be far less than 100 percent.

The Sharks’ injury list after Sunday’s game is a significant one and includes some of their top players.

Among them…

  • Defender Erik Karlsson, who entered the game obviously playing through a groin injury, was limited to just 10:32 of ice-time and played just three minutes after the first period, including zero in the third period.
  • Tomas Hertl, one of the team’s best forwards and leading scorers this postseason, exited the game after the second period. He was on the receiving end of a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period that was uncalled.
  • Joe Pavelski also left the game in the third period following a high hit from Blues defender Alex Pietrangelo along the boards. Keep in mind that he missed the first six games of their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche with a head injury.
  • As if all of that was not enough, Joonas Donskoi also exited the game in the third period after he was hit in the mouth by a puck and was bleeding.

Even if all (or some) of those players are available for Tuesday’s game it is entirely possible they will not be 100 percent. That is especially true for Karlsson who was already looking to be limited in what he was capable of doing entering Sunday’s game. When he did play in Game 5 he looked tentative, slow, and was guilty of a brutal turnover that resulted in the Blues’ first goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That turnover was just the start of what would be a complete meltdown by the Sharks that saw them record 36 penalty minutes (including two misconducts) and give the Blues two 5-on-3 power plays. Add that to the return of the bad version of Martin Jones in net and you had a perfect recipe for a blowout loss on the ice.

As for the Blues, this was just an all-around impressive performance.

The win improved them to 7-2 on the road this postseason and is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it has them in a position where they are now just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1970 season. It was also their 11th win of the playoffs, setting a new franchise record for most wins in a single postseason.

Jaden Schwartz, who scored just 11 goals in 69 games during the regular season, recorded his second hat trick of the playoffs to give him a team-leading 12 postseason goals, while Vladimir Tarasenko extended his current point streak to five games by scoring on a penalty shot in the second period (the first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history).

The Sharks had a couple of near-misses by ringing a pairing of shots off the goal post next to Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, including one from Evander Kane just 10 seconds into the game, but recorded just 10 shots on goal over the second and third periods, which was a pretty accurate reflection of the shutdown performance by the Blues defensively.

Game 6 of Blues-Sharks is 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night in St. Louis.

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.

Tarasenko scores first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues history

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The St. Louis Blues put on an absolute clinic in the second period on Sunday afternoon, scoring a pair of goals and outshooting the San Jose Sharks by a 20-6 margin.

The second goal came from star winger Vladimir Tarasenko when he scored on a penalty shot by ripping a laser of a shot behind Sharks goalie Martin Jones, making him look relatively helpless in the process.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

It is a noteworthy goal not only because it gave the Blues a 3-0 lead, but also because it is the first time in Blues franchise history that they have scored a goal on a penalty shot in a playoff game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is also only the second time the Blues have had a penalty shot in a playoff game, as Tarasenko’s attempt joined Jimmy Roberts during the 1968 playoffs (Roberts did not score).

Tarasenko’s goal was his seventh of the playoffs and his second of the Western Conference Final. He has now recorded at least one point in every game against the Sharks. He was awarded the penalty shot when he was tripped by Sharks defender Brent Burns on a breakaway.

His goal came after Jaden Schwartz scored his 10th goal of the playoffs earlier in the period, capitalizing on a brutal play by Jones that saw him turn the puck over in front of the net to a wide open Schwartz.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks host Blues in Game 5 of Western Conference Final

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Game 5: St. Louis Blues at San Jose Sharks, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Liam McHugh anchors Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Final series:

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*If necessary
(All times ET, subject to change)

Sharks’ Karlsson set to play in Game 5 vs. Blues

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The San Jose Sharks will have one of their best defensemen in the lineup when they host the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Erik Karlsson is set to battle through whatever is ailing his groin, a nagging injury that appeared to aggravated in a 2-1 loss against the Blues in Game 4 on Friday.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson grimaced on the Sharks bench, where he sat from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period. Karlsson was able to play out the final 1:55 of the game as the Sharks went hunting for an equalizer.

How effective Karlsson will be is up in the air. NBC Sports analysts Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Sharp broke down some tape of Karlsson, who was certainly hobbled by the injury.

Karlsson finished Game 4 having played 24:33. He has two goals and 16 points in these playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 3.

At the very least, Karlsson’s presence will help Brent Burns, who is already playing nearly 29 minutes a game and probably doesn’t need more added to his plate.

[More: The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series]


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