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.

Oilers finally fire GM Chiarelli: report

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It is done.

It would appear that a loss to the last place Detroit Red Wings was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And man, that camel was a stubborn such and such.

The Oilers reportedly fired general manager Peter Chiarelli late Tuesday after another miserable outing in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday, a move that the club is expected to formally announce on Wednesday.

The move, of course, was a long-time coming.

Chiarelli had failed to move the team forward, and in the eyes of many Oilers fans, only moved the team in the opposite direction.

The Oilers went from the Western Conference Final to one of the most disappointing teams in 2017-18. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Surely, a team sporting the best player in hockey couldn’t be held down for too long.

Tuesday’s loss, Edmonton’s third straight and perhaps most embarrassing of the season, was proof even McJesus can’t save this bunch alone.

The Oilers own a 23-24-3 record, shockingly just three points out of a playoff spot and yet still likely insurmountable.

In his wake, a litany disastrous moves that may take a while to make right after Chiarelli’s three-and-a-half years in northern Alberta.

We’re reminded of Milan Lucic’s contract, that Griffin Reinhart deal and others that saw good players — Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — leave with less than adequate players coming to replace them.

More recently, the trade of Drake Caggulia for Brandon Manning, and the very recent three-year, $13.5 million deal for Mikko Koskinen, one based on less than 40 NHL games, a career .905 save percentage, and equipped with a limited no-trade clause just so Chiarelli’s legacy will live on in Edmonton all the longer.

Yeah, there’s a mess on a few aisles that need a major cleanup.

But by who? What the future holds is anyone’s guess at the moment.

In the interim, Sportsnet’s John Shannon said a member of the Gretzky family will take the reins in some fashion.

Keith Gretzky will assume many of Chiarelli’s duties in the next few weeks, with Vice Chairman Bob Nicholson being more involved until they find a new GM.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ken Hitchcock, who just took over as head coach earlier this season after the team fired Todd McLellan, take over the post at some point. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some recycling, either. That’s kind of par for the course in Edmonton, re-using old parts hoping they work like new again. Canning a GM mid-season isn’t common.

That would be a shame, however.

Edmonton deserves a clean slate, from top to bottom. This isn’t going to be the first “rebuild.” It’s not the second or third either.

Connor McDavid deserves a better fate.

Oilers fans deserve a better team. God knows they’ve been starving for one for a long while.


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

Capitals’ Ovechkin to play Wednesday, sit first game after all-star break

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Alex Ovechkin will serve his punishment for missing the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in the Washington Capitals first game back after the break.

Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, is choosing to play instead as the Capitals look to end a six-game losing streak before an extended weekend off.

Ovi will now miss the team’s Feb. 1 meeting with the Calgary Flames.

The move appears to be purely based on where the Capitals are at the moment, and that’s in a rut. The six-game losing streak has a seen them fall out of first place with just three wins in their past 10 games.

Despite the back-to-back nature of Wednesday’s game — the Caps blew a two-goal third-period lead in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday — Ovechkin and the Caps will host a Toronto team that’s lost three straight and seven out of their past 10. The game, then, is a better opportunity to snap the winless skid. There isn’t a team hotter than the Calgary Flames, so it makes sense.


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

The Buzzer: Hertl, Ovechkin trade hat tricks in 13-goal game

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Three stars

1. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

In a game that featured 13 goals and two hat tricks, it was Hertl’s night that stood out amongst his peers.

Hertl scored one of the hat tricks and added an assist for his four-point night. Hertl was instrumental in the third period, scoring the goal to bring the Sharks to 6-5 and then assisting on Evander Kane‘s second of the game with one second left in the third period to send it to overtime.

In the extra hockey portion, Hertl finished the hat trick, scoring the game-winner at 1:48. It’s his second hat trick of the season, and second this month.

The Sharks won 7-6.

Here are the highlights:

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

It’s almost as if Ovechkin dangles the thought of someone catching him in the goal-scoring race, only to separate himself every time someone gets close. He’s just playing with those chasing him down.

Ovechkin notched another hat trick on Tuesday, scoring goals No. 34 thru 36 in the Capitals sixth straight loss. That’s 23 career hat tricks for Ovi, which are broken down here:

3. Luke Glendening, Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings will head into their mandated week off on a high (and not in last place in the NHL) after Glendening scored a brace in a 3-2 win over the embattled Edmonton Oilers.

His first of the game came as he slipped in behind the Oilers defense and tapped in a shot past Mikko Koskinen. His second, the game-winner, came on a nice move to the net, slipping the puck past Koskinen.

Highlights of the night

The Hands of Kane:

Talk about cutting it close:

Factoids

Scores

Sharks 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Coyotes 3, Senators 2
Blackhawks 3, Islanders 2 (SO)
Flames 3, Hurricanes 2 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Oilers 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

New contract, same result as Koskinen, Oilers fall to Red Wings

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A shiny new $4.5 million contract couldn’t help Mikko Koskinen stop the puck any better, nor could it help the Edmonton Oilers outscore their opponent on Tuesday night.

A day after the most puzzling contract extension in a long time, Koskinen allowed a couple softies to the basement-dwelling Detroit Red Wings as the Oilers lost 3-2 in another miserable effort on NBSCN.

All eyes were on Koskinen and the Oilers after Monday’s developments. After 40 minutes on Tuesday, Oilers fans were booing their team off the ice. Not a good sign, but perhaps not one that was all that surprising or unfamiliar.

Allowing goals like this was a big part of the problem for the Oilers, and Koskinen — despite the big-money deal — hasn’t been preventing too many of them lately.

Just listen to Ray Ferraro’s reaction on this one:

Koskinen actually made a couple of quality saves in the game, but then there was this sort of thing where he just chucked sound goalie positioning out the window.

After two periods, it was so bad that NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick put the Oilers on blast.

“I’m just sitting here watching this game and shaking my head,” Roenick said. “I’m boggled that this is a professional hockey league team. The Edmonton Oilers are so bad. They can’t put two passes together. Their passing decisions. Their positioning defensively. They look, in all three zones, they looked confused. They have no idea where they are going. They are throwing hope-for passes up the ice hoping that they catch somebody in a rush where they can get an out-numbered situation. They might have good skaters, fast skaters, but their feet and their hands go so much faster than their brains. They have no idea what they are doing out there and it shows so much.

“You’ve got the Detroit Red Wings, and God bless them, the worst team in the National Hockey League by points [with] 43, and they look like the Stanley Cup champions compared to this Edmonton Oilers team. I can understand why Connor McDavid is as frustrated as he is. He’s on the only guy that’s working, the only guy doing something smart with the puck.

“We talk about hockey IQ, and some players with great hockey IQ. This team might have, from 18 players, the lowest hockey IQ I’ve seen in a long time, the way they’re playing this game. It’s embarrassing. I can understand why there were boos for this team going off the ice after the second period. It’s just awful to watch.”

The Oilers responded, scoring twice in the third period, including this one from Leon Draisaitl to give fans some hope.

It wouldn’t be enough, however.

Jimmy Howard continued his dominance against the Oilers, now 14-2-0 in his past 16 starts against Edmonton after making 32 saves.

Koskinen finished with 24 saves on 27 shots for another sub-.900 save percentage outing — his third straight. Koskinen has a .910 save percentage on the year and is .905 in his brief NHL career.

The Red Wings moved out of the NHL’s basement with the win while the Oilers lost their third straight and sixth in their past 10. The crazy thing is Edmonton is just three points back of a playoff spot as of Tuesday night.

The saga continues…


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