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.

The Buzzer: Cirelli, Lightning cruise past Jets; Crosby tallies OT winner

Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Getty Images
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Three Stars

1) Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning

Cirelli recorded his first NHL hat trick as the Lightning steamrolled the Winnipeg Jets Friday evening. The 22-year-old scored twice in the opening period as the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 lead and never looked back. Cirelli hammered a feed from Ondrej Palat 9:27 into the game and then converted a nifty forehand-backhand maneuver to close out the first 20 minutes. Cirelli would complete the hat trick midway through the third period.

2) Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Malkin recorded two power-play assists to set up Pittsburgh’s two goals in its 2-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings. Sidney Crosby has received a lot of attention since returning from a 28-game absence earlier this week and added the game-winning goal Friday. However, it was Malkin who looked off the defender and delivered a perfect pass to set up the Penguins captain. Malkin has recorded 10 points in the previous six games.

3) Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The 26-year-old winger scored twice in Tampa Bay’s 7-1 win. Cirelli and Kucherov alternated goals as Tampa Bay jumped out to a 4-0 lead, including three in the opening period. Kucherov buried two tap-in opportunities to record goals 21 and 22 on the season. The Russian winger has five goals in his previous three games and the Lightning improved to 12-2-0 in the previous 14 games.

Highlights of the Night

Crosby extended his goal-scoring streak to three games when he buried a pretty feed from Malkin to propel the Penguins in overtime.

Sam Steel fired the OT winner after Andrei Svechnikov‘s costly turnover.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Detroit Red Wings 1 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1 (OT)

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Winnipeg Jets 1

NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
• All-Star Game rosters
• Rosters for Elite Women’s 3-on-3 Revealed
• Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
• Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game
• NHL Skills Competition to feature women’s 3-on-3, pucks shot from stands

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Predators’ Arvidsson fined $2,000 under NHL diving policy

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NEW YORK (AP) — Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson has been fined $2,000 by the NHL under the league’s rules regarding diving and embellishment.

NHL Rule 64 was designed to penalize players who repeatedly dive and embellish in an attempt to draw penalties. A player gets a warning for a first citation and a $2,000 fine for the second citation.

League officials said Arvidsson received a warning following an incident Dec. 27 against Pittsburgh. His second citation occurred during an incident in the first period of a Jan. 7 game with Boston that resulted in coincidental minor penalties on Arvidsson and Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

Fine proceeds go to the players’ emergency assistance fund.

Fans troll with Tkachuk billboard, charities end up the big winners

Tkachuk billboard Kassian Flames Oilers
via CJAY 92
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Matthew Tkachuk‘s trolling made a great impact, and not just by earning the Flames a power play. Thanks to enterprising Flames and Oilers fans, a drive to put up a Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton morphed into something much more, raising a ton of money – more than $50K overall, it seems – for charitable causes.

It’s the sort of thing that might even make Zack Kassian smile.

[Catch up on the feud: Kassian threatens Tkachuk after suspension; witness the carnage]

This began with a modest Tkachuk billboard meant to gently torment

The ball really got (t)rolling when Mohamed Elsaghir (self-proclaimed “second most-hated man in Edmonton after Matthew Tkachuk) started a GoFundMe drive to put up Tkachuk billboards to torment Oilers fans.

CTV’s Glenn Campbell chronicles how that amusing idea morphed into something much bigger. Not only are Tkachuk billboards going up, but the process looks like it will raise at least $20K for ALS research.

The viral sensation drew the attention of Calgary radio station CJAY 92, which is owned by Bell Media. That connection made the billboards happen, and oh are the designs ever glorious:

With the billboards taken care of by CJAY 92/Bell Media, Elsaghir instead shifted the focus of that $10K donation drive to combating ALS. Elsaghir noted that proceeds will be donated to Snowy Strong for ALS in honor of Flames assistant GM Chris Snow’s battle with the disease. To make it even better, entrepreneur W. Brett Wilson pledged to match that $10K, pushing the money raised to $20K and counting.

Oh, and even that doesn’t cover the extent of the money raised by the raised ire between Tkachuk and Kassian.

Oilers fans get into the charitable, trolling spirit, too

Edmonton resident Samantha Costa made about a $25 donation to Calgary charity Brown Bagging It “in honor of Kassian.” That charity seeks to serve needy children with lunches. With that in mind, Costa ended her tweet with a nice barb:I chose @BrownBaggingIt so that kids can get a proper meal and grow up to be tougher than Tkachuk.”

Well, Costa’s tweet went viral, too.

To make this all more delightful, Brown Bagging It has been sharing updates that indicate this side of “The Charitable Battle of Alberta” will be competitive, too.

Wow.

Flames and Oilers meet again soon, and will get to see the Tkachuk billboard

Other NHL trash-talkers need to step their games up now, to be frank. Brad Marchand needs to lick this one now, is what I’m saying.

The Tkachuk billboard notes that the Flames – Oilers “the friendship tour” continues in Edmonton on Jan. 29. After that, the two teams meet in Calgary on Feb. 1. They also close out the regular season in Calgary on April 4.

Kassian vs. Tkachuk Part II already ranked as must-watch hockey, and a potential mess for the NHL. Following this inspiring charitable drive, it’s even more exciting. Honestly, “The Battle of Alberta” just keeps piling on reasons to cross our fingers for a playoff series.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Pass or Fail: LA Kings’ 2020 Stadium Series jerseys

adidas / Kings
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One day after the Colorado Avalanche showed off their jerseys for next month’s Stadium Series game, the Los Angeles Kings revealed what they will wear when they hit the ice at at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC).

As is tradition for Stadium Series games, the design is very unique and out there. The black, white, and silver is there along with the LA from their regular jerseys “taking flight” since the game will take place on the campus of the Air Force Academy.

adidas / Kings

Now while you’re maybe distracted by the black and white of the jerseys and the sweet white gloves, do not overlook one neat feature: the shiny silver helmets.

adidas / Kings

Some additional notes from adidas:

Crest: A new L.A. crest takes flight on diagonal bisected blocking, inspired by aircraft battle stripes.

Design: The architecture of the venue’s Air Force Academy, coupled with a pilot’s ambition to push to the edge, inspired the oblique angles used to shape the jersey’s typography and numbering. A checkerboard design graphic is implemented along the neckline.

What do you think? The black, white, and silver against the burgundy, blue, and white will be an interesting look on the ice.

MORE: Avalanche reveal 2020 Stadium Series jersey

The 2020 Stadium Series game between the Avalanche and Kings will take place Feb. 15 at Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.. The game will air on NBC at 8 p.m. ET.

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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.