Golden Knights no longer being saved by Marc-Andre Fleury

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Goaltending is hockey’s great equalizer, and it can also totally screw with our interpretation of what is happening on the ice in any given game, series, or season.

It can make us think mediocre teams are better than they actually are.

It can make us think great teams are worse than they actually are. It can make us think we are seeing something that we are not actually seeing.

Sometimes your great defensive team that has bought into sacrificing and selling out to play a stifling brand of hockey is just a bad hockey team that gets stuck in its own zone all night and has a great goalie. Sometimes your team of underachievers that never have what it takes to win when it counts and needs some sort of a culture change is just a team that is getting sub-par goaltending. 

This, of course, is not always the case. Sometimes there really are great defensive teams independent of their goalie. Sometimes teams do need to make changes beyond the goalie to break through the wall and win. But goaltending messes with us a lot.

This brings us to the story of Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Through the first three rounds of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs Fleury had seemingly built a brick wall around his net and was in the process of authoring one of the great postseason goaltending performances in NHL history. He was not only the leader in the Conn Smythe Trophy race, but he seemed to have a pretty strong case to pull a Jean-Sebastian Giguere and potentially win the award even if his team lost. He was playing the best hockey of his life and was one of the driving forces behind one of the most stunning stories in professional sports history.

All of it is still true. All of those wins in the first three rounds still happened. He still made all of those saves. It all counts. No matter what happens the rest of the way in this series it is going to be a postseason run for the ages.

Eventually, though, there was going to come a point where he was no longer going to stop 95 percent of the shots he faced because no goalie is ever going to maintain that level of play all the time. The regression monster eventually comes for every hot streak and it can be ruthless depending on the timing. The only question for Fleury was whether or not it was going to come in the Stanley Cup Final or if it was going to come next season.

Through the first four games against the Washington Capitals it has become strikingly obvious that it has come now. The numbers in this series for Fleury are not kind. Through the first four games Fleury has already allowed 16 goals on 103 shots for a save percentage of only .845, a dramatic fall from the .946 mark he had in the first three rounds.

There are a couple of ways to look at this.

On one hand, you could look at it as NHL seasons being full of hot streaks and cold streaks and Fleury, after playing a white-hot level for the first 15 games of the playoffs, was due to hit a valley and has simply not played as well.

Or you could look at it as the team around him has played significantly worse against a great team and has left him out on an island on far too many occasions, failing to give him anywhere near enough help.

The latter point seems to be the popular approach here. Following Vegas’ Game 4 loss in Washington, a night where Fleury gave up six goals in what the Golden Knights thought was a pretty strong showing on their part, coach Gerard Gallant was asked if he ever gave any consideration to lifting Fleury.

“No. Never,” said Gallant. “I think at least five of the six goals they had wide open nets, nothing he could do.”

On Tuesday he reenforced his stance that the players around his goalie need to be better

“Play better defensively,” said Gallant. “There’s too many guys staring at the puck carrier, and we’re leaving the back side open too much. Make sure we’re paying attention to the guys behind the puck and away from the puck. Marc will make the save on the guy shooting the puck. We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking away the passes.”

This is where things get tricky with Fleury and the Golden Knights.

Gallant is correct that his team needs to be better in a lot of ways. There have been goals in this series where Fleury did not have much of a chance. The team around its goalie does need to play better, and not just in the defensive zone, but also in the offensive zone where turnovers have been plentiful and sustained pressure has been insufficient.

But what if — and this might be a controversial take given the way this story is unfolding — the Golden Knights are playing largely the same way defensively that they did through the first three rounds and the only difference is Fleury is no longer able to consistently bail them out with mind-bending saves?

Below is a series-by-series breakdown of what Fleury has faced this postseason, including total shots on goal and “high-danger chances,” and how many of those shots he has stopped.

(These are all situations numbers — even strength, power play, penalty kill — and the high-danger data is via Natural Stat Trick.)

Notice the column on the far right? Vegas is actually giving up fewer high-danger chances in the Final than it did in the previous two rounds against the San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets. Three of their 10 best individual games this postseason in terms of suppressing those sorts of chances have come in this series.

If there is a point to be made here it is this: Vegas has not played that great defensively this postseason.

How many times throughout the first three rounds (well, maybe only the past two rounds because the Los Angeles Kings were just totally incompetent and embarrassing offensively) did we talk about how Fleury made some sort of unconscious save that defied all reason and logic? How many times did the Jets talk about Fleury stealing games against them? Just because Fleury was making those saves does not mean those chances against were not happening — because they were. Overall this postseason Vegas has given up an average of 11.91 high-danger chances (all situations) per game. That is the third-worst mark of all the teams in these playoffs. That is bad.

For three rounds, Fleury stopped an obscene number of those chances.

Now he is not.

This does not necessarily mean that it is Fleury’s fault. It is more a commentary on just how great he was through the first three rounds that the Golden Knights were able to overcome it.

So why has it changed in this series?

You could look at it as an inevitability that he was due for some sort of a regression and that if you give NHL shooters enough chances they are eventually going to make you pay.

It also might have something to do with the team he and the Golden Knights are playing. As I pointed out before the start of the series the Capitals are quite familiar with Fleury given his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in their two previous postseason matchups they had no issues scoring goals against him. They know him. They know the way he plays. The Capitals not only have some of the best high-end talent that the Fleury and the Golden Knights have faced this season, but they are capable of playing a brand of hockey that can take advantage of Fleury’s style of play.

Gallant pointed out how many “empty net” goals the Capitals have been able to score and his team’s need to take away passing lanes because they are giving up a lot of backdoor play type goals. Fleury is an aggressive goalie. He challenges shooters and relies significantly on his athleticism to recover and make saves. That style of play and athleticism can result in highlight reel saves that blow your mind. It can also leave him vulnerable to the type of goals the Capitals have been scoring in bunches in this series where it looks like he has no chance.

In the end there can be more than one true development here.

Yes, the Golden Knights do need to be better defensively in front of Fleury because they have not always been great defensively in this series or in these playoffs.

Yes, it is also true that Fleury is not playing quite as great as he did earlier in the playoffs.

This, again, does not mean he is to blame for the deficit they are facing. It just means he played at a ridiculous level for 15 games that probably helped push his team further in the playoffs than it otherwise would have gone with a different goaltending performance.

If they are going to comeback in this series they are probably going to have to hope he gets back to that level for three more games.

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

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

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WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

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.