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.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”