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Fleury’s past playoff dominance of Capitals not what it seems

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final might be one of the most intriguing matchups the NHL has had in years given the number of different storylines both teams carry into it.

You have the absurd development that is a first-year expansion team playing in the series and having a chance to win the whole thing after not even existing at this time a year ago.

You have Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin playing in his first Stanley Cup Final.

Then there is the fact that Vegas general manager George McPhee spent years holding the same position with the Capitals and has had a hand in building both of these teams. It is remarkable theatre, all of it.

And then there is the Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals storyline.

Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final I wrote about how the Capitals have had to face and overcome a lot of their previous postseason demons this year, from gut-punch losses, to having to once again face their arch-rival that had knocked them out in nine out of 10 previous postseason meetings, to being on the brink of letting a multiple-game series lead slip away.

To this point they have faced them all and conquered them all to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998 and only the second time in franchise history.

It is in this series that they will have to face the goalie that has helped shut down and eliminate two of the best Capitals teams of the past 10 years with a couple of stellar Game 7 wins in Washington. In 2009 it was Fleury robbing Ovechkin with a glove save on an early first period breakaway to help set the tone for a Penguins’ rout on their way to a Stanley Cup. Just one year ago it was Fleury blanking the Capitals with a 29-save shutout in another Game 7 to help the Penguins on their way to another Stanley Cup.

Given those two games and the results of both series it would be easy to look at this matchup as the Capitals having to face another postseason demon that has tortured them in the past. To a point that is kind of true.

Here is the weird thing about this matchup: the Capitals — and Ovechkin — have been able to get to Fleury quite a bit in their previous playoff matchups.

A lot, actually.

Some numbers…

— In his 14 career playoff games against the Capitals Fleury has managed only a .902 save percentage and has allowed at least three goals in eight of those games and at least four goals in four of those games. Only once (the aforementioned Game 7 shutout a year ago) has he allowed less than two.

— That .902 save percentage in matchups with the Capitals is one of his lowest marks against teams that he has seen more than once in the playoffs. Throughout Fleury’s career he has played at least 10 playoff games against six different teams and that .902 mark against the Capitals is one of his worst against any opponent.

  • In 11 games over two series against the Columbus Blue Jackets he has a .920 mark.
  • In 13 games over two series against the Detroit Red Wings it is .918.
  • In 17 games against the New York Rangers it is .924.
  • In 18 games against the Ottawa Senators it is .906.
  • In 14 games against the Capitals it is .902.
  • In 17 games agains the Philadelphia Flyers it is .898.

If you look at it on an individual game basis, six of Fleury’s 30-worst individual save percentage games in the playoffs have come against the Capitals. That also includes two of his 10 worst.

— On an individual level Ovechkin has had more goal-scoring success against Fleury than he has against any other goalie/team he has faced more than once in the playoffs. In 14 games against Fleury in the playoffs Ovechkin has scored 10 goals, a .714 goals per game average (that would be a 58-goal pace over 82 games).

For comparisons sake, In 13 games against the Flyers over two series in his career he has seven goals (a .538 average). In 33 games against the Rangers over five series he has 13 goals (a .380 average). In two series against the Penguins with Matt Murray in net he has five goals in 12 games (a .416 average).

Basically all of Fleury’s success and dominance of the Capitals in the playoffs comes down to a breakaway early in one game, and a Game 7 shutout that featured an Ovechkin shot being an inch in either direction from potentially changing the course of the game, series, and season for both teams.

Obviously given the circumstances those performances and saves will stand out, especially in the context of Fleury and the Penguins going on to win and the Capitals … well … not winning.

But from a big picture perspective Ovechkin and the Capitals’ issue against Fleury hasn’t been their ability to beat him. Because they do. In the two series against him they’ve both scored more than enough goals to win only to have their own goaltenders implode on themselves, or the defense to fall apart, or something else to go wrong. That kind of goes back to what the whole Alex Ovechkin — and the Capitals — playoff story has been like until this season: No matter how good things seem for him and the team, there is always that one thing that goes wrong at the wrong time. In a sport where there is such a razor thin line between success or failure, one shot, one play, one call can completely change everything. Or one early breakaway or one shot off the butt end of a goalie’s stick.

So what does this all mean for this series? Probably not much. Each series is its own independent event and what happened a year ago or 10 years ago really does not matter this season.

Maybe Fleury keeps playing the way he has through the first three rounds and stones the Capitals. Maybe Ovechkin scores five or six goals and Vegas lignts up Holtby for five goals a game and it happens to the Capitals again. Maybe Ovechkin scores five or six goals in the series and Braden Holtby is able to do is job at the other end and help the Capitals finally win hockey’s ultimate prize. Who is to know?

In the end it is just another intriguing storyline in what is probably one of the more fascinating Stanley Cup Final matchups we have ever seen. Ovechkin and the Capitals have arrived on the biggest stage after successfully rewriting their postseason narrative … and they have to face one of the key guys that has seemingly helped make that narrative what it is.

So far this postseason the Capitals have consistently been able to face those razor thin margins and previous postseason demons and come away on the right side of them.

It is kind of fitting that they get one more chance to completely change their story against one of their long-time foes.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?
• How Golden Knights were built
• How Capitals were built

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Smith-Pelly’s conditioning; Replacing Lundqvist

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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.

• Up top, a highlight package from Wednesday’s Hockeyville game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Buffalo Sabres.

• Devante Smith-Pelly’s absence from preseason games is conditioning related. (Washington Post)

• Take some makeup, a little creativity and a love for hockey and you get this. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A review of each Carolina Hurricanes’ headshot for this season. (Section 328)

• Here’s an in-depth look at the players that are tasked with bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Current)

• The Washington Capitals’ black owners say their Stanley Cup win is helping them expand their reach to minorities. (The Color of Hockey)

• Will Ryan Murray ever be healthy enough for Columbus? (The Hockey News)

• A look into the task of replacing Henrik Lundqvist. (The Trentonian)

• Mike Keenan is battling prostate cancer. (TSN)

• A look back on the career of Brian Gionta. (The Hockey Writers)

• A decision must be made on who is going to be the backup to Fredrik Andersen in Toronto, just not yet. (Sportsnet)

• Ranking every starting goalie in the NHL. (Yardbarker)


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

Kings hope to get over 1st-round playoff hump with Kovalchuk

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.

The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings – he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.

Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.

”I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.

With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.

”I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. ”We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”

Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:

KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.

SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.

Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.

COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.

Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.

THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.

AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Blue Jackets aim for playoffs with future of stars in doubt

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — So what’s going on with ”Bob” and ”Bread”?

That question dominated the off-season discussion around the Columbus Blue Jackets, overshadowing everything else surrounding a team coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

A legitimate inquiry for sure, considering Bob and Bread – otherwise known as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin – are major pieces of a team that should be a solid playoff contender again this season.

The two Russians are playing out the final year of their contracts, and Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s primary goal this summer was to lock up both superstars with multiyear deals. Neither of the deals got done.

Panarin has said he isn’t sure he wants to commit to Columbus for the long haul. Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to get together on numbers.

”They’re our best players, no question about it,” veteran forward Cam Atkinson said. ”We’re going to treat it as business as usual. I’m not going to look at them any differently, because at the end of the day it’s their decision. There’s only so many times in your career where you’re in the driver’s seat.”

WINDOW IS OPEN

If Panarin and Bobrovsky play to their capabilities, and some other Blue Jackets who battled injuries or otherwise struggled last year can bounce back, the team should be playoff contenders again. Columbus was eliminated in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the past two years.

”I think we’ve crossed the bridge as a team hoping to win,” said coach John Tortorella, who signed a two-year contract extension before camp opened.

”I think we crossed that bridge, I think we know we can win,” he said. ”The players’ mindset, I think they know they can win. I think we showed that the past couple years. We’ve stumbled in the playoffs, and that’s what we have to take note of here.”

Panarin set a franchise record with 27 goals and 55 assists (82 points) in 81 games. The second-highest scorer among forwards was rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had 20 goals and 28 assists (48 points).

The Blue Jackets grabbed the first wildcard in the rugged Metropolitan Division despite subpar years from usually reliable forwards Atkinson (46 points), Alexander Wennberg (37 points), Boone Jenner (32 points) and Nick Foligno (33 points). Injuries definitely played a part.

THS STATE OF ZACH

Defenseman Zach Werenski is getting healthy again after playing much of last season with a bum shoulder. He started hitting last week and is hoping to be ready to go by the Oct. 4 opener in Detroit.

Werenski suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the 12th game last season. The rest of the way he wore a cumbersome brace that wrapped around his chest and arm to keep his shoulder from separating. His movement was restricted, which affected his defensive skills, but he still managed to finish with 16 goals.

”It’s awful hard for a defenseman to play all those games that he played and put up the numbers he put up and do some of the things he did with that shoulder the way it was,” Tortorella said. ”He’s one that we’re certainly going to watch very closely.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Blue Jackets added some help at center by signing center Riley Nash, the 29-year-old former Boston Bruin who put up career numbers last year. Nash had 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in 76 games, besting his previous high by 16 points.

The team also signed 22-year-old forward Anthony Duclair, who had 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games with the Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes last season,

The Blue Jackets bid farewell to longtime players Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh) and Matt Calvert (Colorado), as well as to Ian Cole (Colorado), a defenseman who played valuable minutes down the stretch after being acquired at the trade deadline last season.

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Question for Bruins (again): How long can Chara keep going?

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BOSTON (AP) — How much longer can Zdeno Chara keep this up?

The Boston Bruins defenseman – and leader in ice time – will turn 42 this season, and sooner or later the window will close on his opportunity to skate around the ice again with the Stanley Cup. For his teammates, that means focusing on this season as their best and possibly last chance to win with him.

”The older you get, it’s just about winning,” said David Krejci, one of five holdovers from the franchise’s last title, in 2011. ”We know that we’re not going to be playing in the league for 10 more years, but we have maybe three, four, five years left, who knows, but this is it. We worked really, really hard this summer to get the job done this year.”

Chara was already an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star when he signed with Boston a dozen years ago, and the Bruins built a contender around him that went to the Stanley Cup finals twice in three years. (They lost to Chicago in 2013.)

Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand and David Krejci are the only other players remaining from the 2011 champs. Bergeron is 33, Rask and Krejci will turn 32 during the playoffs, and Marchand will turn 31. (Steven Kampfer was traded away in 2012 and rejoined the Bruins this summer; he just turned 30.)

Charlie McAvoy, the 20-year-old defenseman paired with Chara for most of his career, has seen players come and go and values the stability brought by the core.

”As long as we have those veteran guys the culture will always be the same, I really believe that,” he said. ”I really think it could be another special year. You bring back all these guys, the veterans, it could be an awesome year and I’m really excited to get it going.”

Here are some other things to look for from the Bruins this season:

SOPHOMORES

Helping to take some of the pressure off the aging core is a group with about one year of experience, led by McAvoy. Also among the sophomores are Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk, and Sean Kuraly.

”None of us are forecasting a setback, I call tell you that,” McAvoy said. ”Something about the experience of having a full season, playing a few playoff series now, seeing that element. I can use all those things to allow me to come in and play great hockey from the start. That’s my goal.”

Those five combined to score 151 points (48 goals, 103 assists) last season.

MORE NEW BLOOD

Joining the youth movement are players in their first full season like Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork. Brandon Carlo has two years behind him but is still just 21.

”You need those young guys,” Krejci said. ”And our young guys are fast, they’re good, they’re smart, they make plays. They deserved to make the team last year and I’m looking forward to what they’ll bring again this year, one year under their belts.”

IN NET

Rask returns for his 12th season but he has a new backup.

Jaroslav Halak signed a two-year contract to come to Boston from the Islanders, where he started 49 games last season and had a 3.19 goals-against average. He replaces Anton Khudobin, who had been the backup for two years and started last season 7-0-2 filling in while Rask had a concussion.

The fast start led fans to call for him to replace Rask, when he won just three of his first 13 games. But the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner did not lose a game in regulation from Nov. 26 until Feb. 10, finishing with a 34-14-15 record and a GAA of 2.36.

LONG TRIPS

The Bruins played two exhibition games in China against the Calgary Flames, with Cassidy and half the squad heading over to Shenzhen and Beijing for a week while the rest of the team stayed back in Boston. The split squad wasn’t ideal, but the Bruins started the 2010-11 regular season with two games in Prague and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Cassidy said that would be a nice precedent to follow.

”Well if it’s a repeat of ’11, yes,” he said. ”I’d love that to happen, trust me.”

AP freelancer Matt Kalman contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule