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Flames are saying right things about Mike Smith’s workload

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The Calgary Flames put all their eggs (goaltending-wise) in the Mike Smith basket last season, and that worked out better than most expected … yet they still failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That thought has to gnaw at all but the most optimistic people involved with the Flames. At least, it should, as for all the bold changes “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving made, they’re rolling with the same goalies behind Smith in 2018-19.

As a reminder, the rotation of David Rittich, Jon Gillies, and Eddie Lack absolutely flopped last season, with Rittich’s less-than-ideal .904 save percentage representing the high water mark behind the often-dazzling Smith.

One of the criticisms of the Smith acquisition revolved around his injury history, and when that issue reared its head last season, the Flames really took on water. Players don’t exactly become sturdier as they age, so it would be foolish for Calgary just to “hope for the best” with the 36-year-old netminder, especially since Smith is one of many towering NHL goalies who are tall enough to serve as an NBA small forward. That big frame doesn’t exactly lend itself to longevity.

It’s also not as if Smith’s enjoyed a low-impact stroll to 36; this isn’t the equivalent to, say, Tim Thomas not really logging those big NHL reps until he was 31.

Since joining the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2011-12, Smith’s played the seventh-most games (367), and tellingly, faced the second-largest volume of shots (11,256, only trailing Henrik Lundqvist). Smith could be a Zdeno Chara-level fitness freak, and he’d still be jarringly susceptible to additional injuries.

So, there are enough red flags to make you worry.

Yet, while the Flames decided to cross their fingers that they’d settle upon an in-house solution (barring a desperate training camp phone call to, say, Steve Mason?), they aren’t sticking their hands in the sand about the fine line they need to walk with their grizzled veteran of a goalie.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

“The wear and tear, remember, isn’t just the shots, it’s getting ready, getting the gear on. You hear people say: ‘Oh, he wasn’t very busy tonight. Only 26 shots’ … well, he’s mentally preparing on every shot,” Treliving said, via George Johnson of the Flames website. “There might’ve been 12 blocks and 20 misses. So he’s still preparing for 58. How many up-and-downs is that? It can take a toll.

“We’ve got a plan but a lot of it is predicated on Mike. But it’s a balancing act. He wants to get his work in but there’s a time once the season is up and going where discretion is the better part of valour.”

Treliving brings up an important point even beyond all of the “ups-and-downs,” as goalies need to focus and track the puck all game long. When Braden Holtby discussed fatigue during that hiccup during the 2017-18 regular season, his emphasis was as much on the mental rigors of the game as the physical challenges.

“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” Holtby said. “If you’re fatigued physically, that’s on you. That’s not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up.”

Holtby (who recently turned 29) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (now 24) both acknowledged being tired last season, and they’re far younger than Smith, so it’s positive to see Treliving discuss taking an approach with Smith that would echo the way MLB teams obsessively protect the arms of their pitchers.

Of course, it’s one thing to say all of the right things in mid-September, but what about if the Flames need those critical points in March, particularly if Smith is once again lapping his backups?

It’s also worth asking if Bill Peters – a coach who must be agonizingly anxious to finally clinch a playoff berth – would be willing to look big picture and give his big goalie needed rest. That would be a concern with any coach, yet especially one who admitted to handling things poorly with Eddie Lack, and whose goalies floundered in Carolina.

(There’s no guarantee that Peters is at fault for faulty Hurricanes goaltending, or to what degree he might be to blame. Still, he was a common denominator as Carolina struggled in that area.)

Even for those of us who thought they erred in trading away underrated defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the Flames look like a fascinatingly dangerous team on paper.

On the other hand, they looked just as formidable heading into last season, only to fall well short of expectations, even with a mostly spry Smith. For a team that clearly holds some pretty lofty ambitions, it’s awfully scary to risk so much on the health and freshness of their 36-year-old goalie.

At least they don’t seem totally oblivious to the risks they’re taking.

MORE PHT FLAMES COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Flames
Under Pressure: Brad Treliving

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.

Golden Knights’ Fleury shuns spotlight, keeps going strong

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s postgame routine used to include a call with his father, something that helped him step away from the stress of the game.

He’s had to get used to going without that. His father, Andre, died Nov. 27 after battling lung cancer.

“It’s hard, and took some time to get used to,” said Fleury. “All the guys have been very supportive and kind. The good thing was when I came back, we didn’t talk about it much, we just got back to normal.”

Normal, as in being one of the guys, something he became used to during his 13 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Andre “had such a big impact (on Marc-Andre); they talked about the game a lot,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said of his close friend during his team’s visit to Las Vegas. “We could talk hockey for days, and I think that’s probably something any hockey player can relate to, that relationship with our mom or dad driving us to the rink. You build a pretty close bond.”

Following a rough patch on the ice after his father’s passing, some suggested Fleury’s skills were deteriorating and that the 35-year-old wasn’t handling things between the pipes well at all. He opened the season 11-6-2 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .919 save percentage through Nov. 23. When he returned from an extended leave after his father died, the Golden Knights were in eighth place in the Western Conference. They’ve since climbed to fourth in the conference and are atop the Pacific Division.

Now, as the face of a beloved franchise in one of the most recognizable cities in the world, Fleury does his best to balance life on and off the ice, all while trying to be just another player in the Golden Knights’ locker room.

“I’m a pretty reserved person,” the three-time Stanley Cup champion and five-time NHL All-Star said. “I just want to be treated like the other guys and be with the other guys. That’s how it was for most my career. Maybe Sid took the spotlight a lot, (which) was great. It’s just nice to be one of the guys.”

Which can be tough, considering the 16-year-veteran’s credentials.

With Wednesday’s league-leading fifth shutout, a 3-0 win over Edmonton, Fleury earned his 61st career shutout, tying him for 17th all-time with Turk Broda. His 465 wins rank fifth all-time.

“He’s accomplished so much in his career, but you would never be able to tell with his personality and how genuine and how good of a guy he is,” Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “Basically, he wants to be one of the boys and be treated like any other person. He doesn’t love the attention, but he knows who he is, and he knows what comes with that and he handles it very well.”

Fleury acknowledged he struggled at times to process his father’s death, and still does. But he knew he had to improve mentally if he was going to successfully endure the most difficult season of his highly decorated career.

“Everybody grieves in different ways,” Crosby said. “It’s certainly difficult, I’m sure, but (he’s) got some great memories. It’s something that as friends — as Flower’s family — we’re all gonna try to be there. It’s not easy, but we’ll get through it. He expects a lot of himself. He just wants to win hockey games.”

As of late, Fleury is doing just that.

Since Feb. 15, Fleury is 5-0-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average and .942 save percentage and appears poised to make another deep playoff run after Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon bolstered the lineup at the NHL trade deadline by trading backup goalie Malcolm Subban as part of a three-way deal that brought in Chicago goaltender Robin Lehner, a 2019 Vezina finalist.

It’s perfect timing, as Fleury is settling back into his comfort zone, being one of the guys on yet another playoff contender.

“He’s as advertised, both on and off the ice,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “You always recognize the talent and the skill and how good a goalie he was. I think when you spend time with him and you’re around him, you realize what a gentleman and what a good teammate and what a good person this guy is. And it’s not an act; it’s real. He’s a special person, and that’s what probably separates him more than even his talent, which is very high-end.”

Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Bruins hope trade deadline additions get going vs. Stars

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. 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.

Despite holding the NHL’s best record, the Bruins added some nice pieces at the trade deadline. They weren’t big-budget blockbusters, but Nick Ritchie and especially Ondrej Kase could serve as “sleeper hits.”

Now they just need to stop hitting the snooze button.

Ritchie faced some growing pains in first Bruins game after trade deadline

Ritchie (traded for Danton Heinen) and the Bruins didn’t exactly earn rave reviews from Bruce Cassidy as they fell 5-2 to the Flames on Tuesday.

“[It was] clearly not good enough. I thought some guys came to play and some guys didn’t. [Some guys] didn’t break a sweat, some of them it looked like,” Cassidy said following that loss, via NBC Sports Boston. “I’m sure there was effort [and that] they were trying. They were just in-between, couldn’t execute or whatever. At the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”

A challenging upcoming schedule won’t make it easier to acclimate, either.

The Bruins host the Stars in Boston on Thursday, but then things get bumpy. They play three in a row and five of their next six on the road. Actually, there’s almost a month of road-heavy play, with eight of 11 away from home from Feb. 29 through March 21.

Ritchie noted that everything’s new when you get traded to a new team, and that’s a fair point for any trade deadline addition.

Actually … that concept might be where the Bruins hold a leg up. After all, the Bruins got both Ritchie and Kase from the Ducks, so they have familiarity with each other. (Kase didn’t get to debut yet, but may play on Thursday.)

That familiarity could benefit Ritchie, in particular.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Adding Kase to Bruins is a cause for excitement

If you’re a bit of a “fancy stats” nerd (raises hand), then you’ve looked at Kase as a hidden gem for quite some time. Pick your chart, and Kase will probably come out looking great.

With that in mind, a possible line of Kase, Ritchie, and David Krejci strikes as quite interesting. Especially in tandem with that buzzsaw Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak line, and getting depth from the likes of Charlie Coyle.

Krejci provided some insight into playing with Kase a few days ago, noting that Kase is “fast and can score.”

“You kind of have to adjust your game a little bit, but you have to get a feel for each other,” Krejci said, via NBC Sports Boston’s Nick Goss. “You’ve got to be on the same page with the breakouts, neutral zone. He’s a right-handed shot, so — I’m not sure what’s going to happen (Tuesday vs. the Flames) — but it’s always nice to have a right-handed shot on your line.”

There might be some room for frustration, mind you. Ritchie may create some groans with an ill-timed penalty. Kase’s a player to get excited about, although he might not always get the bounces. The Ducks traded Kase as his shooting percentage was mired at a career-low 5.2 percent, and his career average is modest at 9.5.

But … overall, the possibilities are exciting. Maybe Jake DeBrusk will end up being a better option than Ritchie, but we’ll see.

If they can score against the stingy Stars, that would present one heck of a first (or for Ritchie, second) impression.

John Forslund, Pierre McGuire and analyst Mike Milbury will have the call from TD Garden. Thursday’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

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.

Coronavirus could hinder NHL plans for China preseason games

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The NHL has not announced plans to hold preseason games in China this fall as they continue to keep an eye on the spread of coronavirus.

“We’re monitoring,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Daly this week, via NHL.com. “It’s hard not to monitor it. It seems to be coming closer to us every time, every day that goes by. Certainly, it impacts what our plans will be in China in the future and in the relatively near future.”

According to NBC News, China’s National Health Commission reported on Thursday 29 new deaths linked to coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths on the mainland to 2,744. The Centers for Disease Control has said the the outbreak has been found in 37 locations around the world, including the U.S.

The NHL last went to China in 2018 when the Flames and Bruins played games in Shenzhen and Beijing. Due to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, the NHL did not send teams there this past fall. In August, Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals visited Beijing as an ambassador for the league.

Player stick supplies have been affected and a planned PWHPA tour has been canceled due to coronavirus. Two Friday games in Switzerland will be played in front of empty arenas in order to prevent spreading.

As the NHL continues to plan for the 2020-21 season, the longer a lack of an announcement takes, the less of a hope the league returns to China this coming fall for preseason games.

“Obviously we haven’t announced any games there for next year,” Daly sad. “I think there was certainly a hope that we would be able to play preseason games there next year. I would say that hope probably continues to exist, but as time goes on, it becomes far more problematic.”

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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.