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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Golden Knights try to stay strong at home vs. Predators

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators enter the final game before the All-Star break two points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Central Division lead and powered by the goal scoring efforts of Viktor Arvidsson.

Arvidsson leads the team with 19 goals despite playing just 27 games. He missed three games in November with a lower-body injury, and then in his return to the lineup, he broke his thumb which led to a 21-game absence. He’s currently on pace for a 40-goal season despite missing 24 games to injury. After scoring against Colorado on Monday, he has 11 goals in his last 14 games and is tied with Evander Kane for the NHL lead in goals scored (10) since the calendar turned to 2019.

“He’s the man. I’ve said it a lot, he’s the Energizer Bunny for our team,” said Ryan Johansen. “Every game, he brings it, and it’s contagious for our group. It’s evident when he’s going, our team’s going.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Like last season, the Golden Knights are one of the best home teams in the NHL, though they have lost two of their past three at T-Mobile Arena. They’re 16-5-3 at home this season compared to 13-13-1 on the road. Offensive and defensively their game has been much better in Vegas as they’ve scored 3.29 goals per game and allowed 2.17 goals per game compared to 2.81 goals for and 3.15 goals against on the road.

Some of that goal scoring has come off the stick is the team’s leading scorer, Alex Tuch. His goal on Monday against his old team, the Minnesota Wild, gave him 16 on the season, surpassing his total from 2017-18. Tuch has recorded 39 points in 43 games this season after missing the first eight games in October with a lower-body injury. The production he’s provided so far helped earn him a seven-year, $33.25M extension, which kicks in next season.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Capitals look to end six-game slide vs. Maple Leafs

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals would like to head into their All-Star/bye week break with a victory, but one against the Maple Leafs would be a big relief.

Entering Wednesday, Washington is winless (0-4-2) in their last six games and are coming off an entertaining 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks. They haven’t dropped seven straight since Jan. 2014, and before losing Tuesday night had been 22-0-0 when Alex Ovechkin recorded a hat trick.

Ovechkin is playing against Toronto, which means he’ll sit for their Feb. 1 game against the Calgary Flames for deciding to skip the NHL All-Star Weekend for rest. The Capitals will be eager to use a full-power squad to end the first half on a winning note.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“The only way we’re going to get out of it is to get back to work,” said head coach Todd Reirden. “The only way we are getting out of this is if we work our way out of it, because that’s where you are really going to gain something as a team. If we would have won that game 6-5, it still isn’t the right way to play hockey. It’s great because we feel good because we got the win, but to trade chances, that’s not how we are going to have success and we know that doesn’t bring you long term gain.

“So it’s disappointing. We’re going to work through it [Wednesday vs. Toronto]. It’s not going to stop there. [Wednesday] we are going to come out and I’m expecting us to work as hard as we possibly can to improve in the areas that we’re not. But it’s not stopping there. It needs to be worked on. That was certainly a tough way to lose.”

While the Capitals look to right things before the break, so too are the Maple Leafs, who have won three of their last 10 games and have hit an offensive skid with only 24 goals over that stretch. They’ve lost their last four games at Scotiabank Arena and watched as the Tampa Bay Lightning have extended their lead in the Atlantic Division.

“I think we’re going through some adversity as a team and we want to get out of it as soon as possible,” said forward Auston Matthews. “Hopefully in the long run this is something good for us and we learn from it. It just seems like night after night, it’s little things that are costing us goals and ending up costing us important points. For us, we need to be consistent for a full 60 minutes.”

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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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.

Injured Karlsson could still take part in All-Star Weekend

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is still a chance San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson takes part in NHL All-Star Weekend despite missing the final three games before the break with an injury.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer says Karlsson went back to California for more tests on what the team is calling a lower-body injury. DeBoer didn’t have any further update on Karlsson before his team faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

”I guess it’ll all be depending on what those results are,” DeBoer said. ”I know he wants to play. If there’s a possible way that he can play without hurting himself, then he’s going to play.”

Karlsson is one of three Sharks players picked for the All-Star Game, which is being held in San Jose. Captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns were also selected to represent the Sharks.

DeBoer says Karlsson wants to take part in the skills competition Friday and the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night but won’t risk making the injury worse.

”He’s going to make that decision with our doctors,” DeBoer said. ”If he can’t do any more damage, I know he wants to play in the game. I’m sure the organization would love him in the game. If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play. So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson is in his first season with the Sharks after they acquired him in a trade from the Ottawa Senators, and he’s set to be a free agent this summer. The 28-year-old two-time Norris Trophy winner has three goals and 40 assists in 47 games this season with San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

PHT Morning Skate: Leafs, Matthews talking extension; Seattle wants to be perfect franchise

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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.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews‘ camp have had productive conversations regarding a contract extension. (NHL.com)

• Speaking of the Leafs, GM Kyle Dubas could learn a thing or two from a few of his colleagues around the NHL. (Maple Leafs Nation)

• The trade to Calgary has turned around Elias Lindholm’s game and helped turn him into a complete player. (Sportsnet)

• The San Jose Sharks should be a serious Stanley Cup contender, but they have one big flay that may hold them back. (The Hockey News)

• Panthers forward Mike Hoffman sat down for a Q & A with NHL.com. He discussed his departure from the Sens and much more. (NHL.com)

• On the Tampa Bay Lightning and the routine of using smelling salts. (Tampa Bay Times)

• How is Seattle planning to become one of the model franchises in the NHL? ESPN takes a deeper look. (ESPN)

• Former Canadiens player and coach Guy Carbonneau doesn’t think the team will be able to fix their 31st ranked power play quickly. (Montreal Gazette)

• A look at the defensive turnaround of the New York Islanders. (The Point))

• In helping the St. Louis Blues get going in the right direction, Craig Berube has gone back to basic. (St. Louis Gametime)

• Did the Carter Hart era begin too soon? (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Boston Bruins just can’t stay healthy this season. (WEEI)

• Travis Green’s case for the 2019 Jack Adams Award. (The Canuck Way)

• If a team wants to acquire Chris Kreider for the Rangers, they’ll have to make them a perfect offer. (New York Post)

Kris Letang has been really, really, really good for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. (Pensblog)

• The ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs are looking for a new owner. (Jewels from the Crown)

• With the trade deadline getting closer, the Oilers will have some interesting decisions to make. (TSN)

• Some members of the Bruins tried their hand at a Boston accent:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.