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

6 Comments

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

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

The Buzzer: Lightning dominate, Sabres rally and Gaudreau shines

Getty
1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. Point was a big part of the Lightning’s dominant offensive showing in Chicago on Sunday night when they scored six goals and put 55 shots on goal. Point was a factor in three of those goals, scoring one of them and assisting on two others to give him five goals and eight total points on the season. We know the Lightning have superstars at the top of the lineup, but it is the emergence of secondary players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Point himself over the past four years that have made this team such a force in the Eastern Conference.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. With Mike Smith struggling in the early part of the season could backup David Rittich start to steal some playing time away from him? He has certainly made a strong case for himself over his past two starts, including Sunday’s game in New York where he stopped 43 out of 44 shots in a 4-1 Flames win. In his two starts this season he has now stopped 67 out of 70 shots.

3. Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres ruined the Ducks’ celebration of Paul Kariya on Sunday night by scoring four consecutive goals to erase what was a two-goal deficit midway through the second period. Kyle Okposo started the rally with his first goal of the season late in the period, and then helped complete when he set up Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game-winning goal early in the third period. Okposo had recorded just three assists in his first eight games before Sunday, so it was a much-needed big night for him on the scoresheet.

Ducks defense looks awful again

The Anaheim Ducks have been relying on their goalies — particularly starter John Gibson — more than any other team in the league this season, surrendering shots and chances at an unsustainable rate.

So far, Gibson has been able to keep them in it and steal a bunch of wins.

This weekend Gibson and Ryan Miller were not able to bail them out.

After getting outshot by a 45-18 margin in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, they were outshot 45-28 in their 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. That is 90-46 over two games in 48 hours. That is … terrible.

They are giving up more than 37 shots on goal per game and have been outshot by a ridiculous margin on the young season.

This team looks like a house of cards teetering on the verge of a collapse if their goalies slip up even a little bit. This is, quite simply, not a good hockey team right now no matter what their record says.

Highlights of the Night

Johnny Gaudreau was a big part of the Flames’ win in New York on Sunday night by scoring a pair of goals, both of them coming on wonderful individual efforts. His second goal — which was also his 300th career point — was the best of the two.

The Lightning were dominant all night and it started very early with this slick Nikita Kucherov goal to put them on the board first.

He made that look easy.

Factoids

The Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL record for most shots in a single period when they recorded 33 in the second period (we highlighted that here). They also set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a game.

The Calgary Flames won their first game at Madison Square Garden since 2008.

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 1

Buffalo Sabres 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

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.

Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

AP
1 Comment

The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

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.

Ducks retire Paul Kariya’s No. 9

4 Comments

Before the Anaheim Ducks played host to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night they honored the career of one of the best — and most important — players to ever wear their uniform by officially retiring Paul Kariya’s No. 9.

Kariya, the No. 4 overall pick in the 1993 draft, was the first player ever selected in the NHL draft by the franchise and quickly became the organization’s first superstar, playing nine seasons with the club between the 1994-95 and 2002-03 seasons. During his time with the Ducks he scored 300 goals and 369 assists (669 total points) in 606 games, and was a central figure in the team’s run to the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Final.

It was during that series where he was knocked out by New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens. Concussions and injuries would later derail his career and ultimately lead to his early retirement following the 2009-10 season.

He is among the top-five players in Ducks history in games played, goals, assists, and total points, while his 1.10 point-per-game average with the team is first in franchise history.

After playing for the Ducks he also spent time with the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 402 goals and 989 points in 989 games.

His number is now in the rafters in Anaheim next to his longtime linemate and teammate, Teemu Selanne.

Prior to Sunday’s game all of the current Ducks players wore jerseys with the No. 9 on the back.

You can see highlights of the jersey retirement ceremony in the video above.

Later this season the Ducks will also retire Scott Niedermayer’s No. 27.

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.

Maple Leafs looking for their ‘mojo’ after back-to-back losses

Associated Press
4 Comments

“We got to get our mojo back.”

The sky is far from falling in Toronto, but Mike Babcock knows the secret of his Maple Leafs is finally out.

The Leafs dropped their second straight game for the first time this season on Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

That loss followed a 3-0 shutout defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, the first time Toronto’s dominant offense had been blanked this season.

There have been a few firsts over the past two games, but perhaps for every team in the league, there’s finally a blueprint out there on how to find success against Toronto.

The Leafs have constructed high-danger chance after high-danger chance since the start of the season (they’re third in the NHL with 92 of them) but over the past two games, they haven’t converted on any of them.

Toronto generated 20 high-danger opportunities over the two games but just couldn’t sort pucks into the back of the net in those contests.

Since getting zero goals off 20 chances over their first two games, Toronto had been on a tear, converting 10 goals off chances over their next five games in five-on-five scenarios.

In simpler speak, the likes of Auston Matthews and Co. haven’t been scoring at the same rates they were before their mini-slump here. The well has run dry when playing five-on-five right now and it’s been detrimental to Toronto’s success.

Babcock said after Saturday’s game that his team is finding out it’s hard to score in the NHL. And team’s adjust.

The better you are, the bigger the bullseye when another team takes the ice across from you. And the book on the Maple Leafs is that they’re fast, they transition well and they work well in space.

“The last couple nights, [we] haven’t won enough battles and races. You don’t feel very good about what’s going on,” Babcock told TSN on Sunday. “You have to get back to work, [and hopefully] let your ups be longer than your downs.”

Clog those lanes, play a little tighter and bog the game down seems to be doing the trick over the past two games.

Toronto’s schedule doesn’t get much easier with back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets in a home-and-home mini-series next week. The Jets won their second straight game for the first time this season and are beginning to find scoring from all four of their lines.

Winnipeg is a big and bruising team that can frustrate opposing offenses. Quickly righting the ship will be a stiff challenge in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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