These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury

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We have to talk about Marc-Andre Fleury again because, well, he was making things happen for the Vegas Golden Knights yet again on Wednesday night.

And by making things happen, we are obviously talking about unbelievable saves, stealing games, and helping to be one of the lead authors of one of the most absurd and unbelievable stories in NHL history.

Fleury stopped 33 shots (including 15 out of 16 in the third period) to help the Golden Knights pick up a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, giving them a 2-1 lead in the series.

They are now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, if you can believe it.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Fleury, Marchessault lead Vegas to Game 3 win]

While Jonathan Marchessault scored two more goals, and James Neal had an eventful night coming back from an apparent head injury early in the game to score a goal, and a bunch of GMs continued to look bad for their expansion draft moves, this game was once again the Marc-Andre Fleury show.

Honestly, it was everything we have come to expect from what Fleury is as a goalie, as a player, and heck, even as a person.

There were incredible highlight reel saves, like the absurd sequence in the third period when he preserved Vegas’ one-goal lead by making back-to-back jaw-dropping saves on Mark Scheifele.

Fleury’s athleticism has been his calling card throughout his career, and it allows him (and sometimes even forces him) to make saves like those two.

There was also those moments where he showed that he basically just wants to have fun on the ice.

Like when he thanked his goal posts as only he can.

Or when he trolled Jets forward Blake Wheeler during that second period scrum — the one that Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien had to break up by himself — by flicking the back of his ear.

As if all of that was not enough, he also picked up an assist on Marchessault’s empty-net goal in the closing seconds to help put the game away.

Then after the game he showed what makes him a beloved member of whatever hockey community he is a part of when he met with the wife and children of late Humboldt Broncos coach and general manager Darcy Haugan, spending 20 minutes with them.

This night was the total Fleury experience in every way possible.

Overall, this entire season has been arguably the best hockey that he has ever played in his career. Given that he is already 11th on the NHL’s all-time wins list, already has his name on the Stanley Cup three times, and secured one of those championships with buzzer-beating save on one of the greatest players of all-time (Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom) that is not exactly a small accomplishment. If you want to quibble and point out that he was mostly a backup in the playoffs on the past two Stanley Cup winning teams he played for, you would not be entirely wrong. It is still worth pointing out the Pittsburgh Penguins team from a year ago probably loses in the first or second round without Fleury playing the way he did. So he was still a big part of the success.

But this season.

This season is something else entirely.

This is taking an expansion team — a roster of players that literally did not exist at this time a year ago — to a point where it is now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Six wins from potentially winning the whole thing. He is one of the driving forces behind this run.

It is not only a performance that is re-writing the narrative of his career as a postseason goalie, it might be the final push he needs to cement his status as a Hall of Fame goalie.

A lot of folks will pretty strongly argue that he has already done that in his career, but as I wrote back in February Fleury, to me, has always been a good, very durable goalie that has played for a long time with some incredible highs and some crushing lows.

A fine career, but is it one that is really worthy of the Hall of Fame? It could be — should be — up for some debate.

But what if he backstops a first-year expansion team to the Stanley Cup? Or, at the very least, simply to the Stanley Cup Final? If Vegas wins it — still a big if at this point, but we’re just playing with hypotheticals here — that would be his fourth. He would almost certainly win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He will be in the top-10 in wins and probably somewhere in the top-five when his career ends. No matter your opinion of him as a goalie, no matter what you remember about his postseason meltdowns in the middle part of his career, the people that vote on the Hall of Fame would never, ever, keep that sort of resume out.

Even if this season does not result in a Stanley Cup it still might play a huge role in changing the way his career is looked at.

Right now he is no longer “playoff Fleury,” the goalie that melts down at the most inopportune time and submarines a potential championship team far short of its expectations.

He is now “playoff Fleury,” the goalie that is helping to carry a team to heights no one thought possible at the start of the season.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games for slamming Pettersson to ice

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The NHL announced on Monday evening that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has been suspended two games for “interference and unsportsmanlike conduct” against Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson over the weekend.

Petterson has been entered in to the NHL’s concussion protocol and is expected to be sidelined for the next 7-10 days as a result of the play.

The incident took place early in the third period of Saturday’s game in Florida and left the Canucks completely furious. Just after Pettersson had dangled around Matheson in the offensive zone, Matheson again encountered the talented rookie along the boards and after checking him, proceeded to slam him to the ice with the puck nowhere near the two players.

Here is the video as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner tried to defend his play on Monday by saying that Matheson is an honest player and that he was just attempting to finish his check hard, while Matheson’s agent said that his client was “surprised” by how light Pettersson is and that it all happened very quickly.

On Monday, Canucks coach Travis Green was still upset about the play and how it resulted in his team losing a bright young star to injury on a play that was not necessary.

“Am I mad at the play? Extremely mad. I’m really upset, I still am,” Green said. “We lost a bright young player to an injury that I don’t think was necessary. I’m pissed off right now, still talking about it.”

Matheson forfeits $52,419.36 in salary and is eligible to return to the Panthers’ lineup Saturday against Detroit.

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.

Crosby, MacKinnon surprise Kenyan hockey team (Video)

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Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon have teamed up before to promote Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and donut shop, but their latest venture saw them help spread the gospel of hockey.

Tim Hortons flew 12 members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team to Canada over the summer for a game. The African team, which was formed in 2012 and has set a goal for future Olympic participation, has only been able to play against themselves back home and this would be a new experience playing against an actual opponent.

As the players gathered inside their locker room, which featured brand new equipment and Kenya hockey jerseys, in came the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Colorado Avalanche star to join their team.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” said team captain Benard Azegere. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

“That’s the best part about the game, just how it reaches so many people in a place like Kenya where you wouldn’t think there’s even ice,” Crosby said on Monday via the Tribune-Review. “To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play, I think I had as much fun as any of those guys today.”

The Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation is coming soon, and the men are not alone in their pursuit of a national team. As ESPN.com documented last week, a group of five women make up the Nairobi Ice Lions, who, like the men, see Olympic participation in their future.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

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.

Golden Knights’ Stastny could miss up to two months

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It turns out the injury to Vegas Golden Knights forward Paul Stastny is a lot worse than previously expected.

Originally only thought to be out for a couple of games due to a lower-body injury, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant announced on Monday that his second-line center could be out of the lineup for up to two months.

“Going to be longer than we thought, probably up to two months. Possibly,” he said.

That, obviously, will be a big blow to a Golden Knights offense that has struggled in the early part of the season.

Stastny joined Vegas over the summer on a three-year contract in free agency and was expected to center the second line alongside the team’s other big offseason acquisition, winger Max Pacioretty.

Now those plans are on hold for the next couple of months.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season the Golden Knights are off to a slow start this season having won just two of their first six games as of Monday. One of the biggest problems has been a lack of offense as the team has managed just 11 goals in six games. They have yet to score more than two goals in any one game this season.

While it is a cause for some concern, the Golden Knights are still controlling the shot attempt numbers in pretty much all of their games and being crushed by a dismal 5.2 team-wide shooting percentage. So there is some hope that things will turn around.

The process is there, even if the early results are not.

Still, they need to get more production from a line that isn’t their top one.

When the trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith is not on the ice this season they have been outscored by a 2-12 margin at even-strength. Whether Stastny is in or out of the lineup, that sort of production from the other three lines is not going to be good enough.

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.