Fleury’s boom-or-bust season makes Golden Knights total wild card

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Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was named the NHL’s No. 1 star of the week on Monday after recording back-to-back shutouts in his past two starts, bringing his season total to a league-leading eight shutouts. It is an impressive number when you consider nobody else in the league has more than six, and only one player (Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy) has more than five.

When combined with his league-leading win total, as well as the fact he plays for a prominent team in the Western Conference playoff race, one that was just in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, there is almost certainly going to be some kind of a Vezina Trophy push for him.

But the NHL’s general managers, who are tasked with voting for the Vezina, have not typically given Fleury much attention throughout his career. What stands out about his 2018-19 season so far is that it is in a lot of ways a perfect representation of his career as a whole.

It has featured some incredible highs, and also some incredible lows.

The simplest way to put it is like this — your opinion of Fleury as a Vezina candidate says a lot about what you look for in a goalie; or perhaps more accurately, the way you evaluate a goaltender’s performance in the NHL.

Fleury has always been a goalie that tends to appeal to a large group of fans and analysts because his game has flash to it. You don’t need to understand the finer points or the technical details of the position to appreciate watching him play. He will make the saves and make the plays that show up on highlight reels because he is a freakish athlete, has incredible quickness, and is never truly “out” of any play. He can make any save on any shot.

When everything clicks together at the same time he is capable of looking unbeatable.

When it does not all work together, it can look ugly. Very ugly.

With Fleury’s 2018-19 performance you see a lot of wins, and that will no doubt appeal to the “wins are the only thing that matters” subset of the hockey community.

But folks, it is 2019. We should be well beyond using wins to evaluate goaltending play because a lot of it (not all of it, but a lot of it) is team dependent.

That win total for Fleury is mostly the result of playing for a pretty good team that gives him some decent goal support, and also appearing in more games than any other goalie in the league.

Even if you go with the mindset that “winning is the only stat the matters,” his winning percentage of .571 is tied for fifth among goalies who have appeared in at least 40 games. If you dig down to goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games, it drops down to a tie for eighth.

Again: The current win total is about volume, not necessarily about consistent, dominant play.

But then you see the eight shutouts and probably of think that as an example of the dominance. And to a point, it is. Eight shutouts in a season is a lot. It is even more impressive when it happens in only 56 games, and it shows just how good he is capable of being when he is at his best.

What should stand out about that number, however, is the fact that he has eight shutouts and still only has a .911 save percentage for the season, a mark that is just barely above the league average. It is, quite literally, the middle of the pack among NHL goalies. It almost seems impossible to believe that a goalie with eight shutouts in a season can only have a league average season percentage. You would think they would be dominant.

Of the eight goalies who have recorded at least four shutouts this season, five of them have a save percentage of at least .924. The only three that do not are Fleury, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Mikko Koskinen. Going back even further, in the history of the league there have only been eight instances where a goalie had at least eight shutouts in a season and still finished with a save percentage of .911 or worse, and a few of those came during eras where goal-scoring was significantly higher and save percentages were routinely lower than they are today.

What this should tell us is that while Fleury has been prone to the occasional dominant performance this season, he has also had several games where it just has not been there for him and he his play has totally collapsed on itself. Look no further than the fact he has already had 20 games this season where he has faced at least 15 shots and recorded a save percentage of .890 or worse.

That is tied (with Bobrovsky) for the most in the league. Now, that total (like the win total) is also largely due to the number of games he has actually played. More games means more opportunity to mess up. But that is still close to 36 percent of his starts where he has pretty much given his team no chance to win. The league average for that number is around 29 percent, and if you look at that goalies that have a higher percentage it is a list of goalies that are having pretty awful years. 

(Keep in mind, when goalies face at least 15 shots and have a save percentage of .890 or less this season their teams have only won 15 percent of those games.)

All of this means that on any given night Vegas is either getting one of the best goalies in league, or one of the worst. There is very rarely any sort of middle ground with him.

This is what makes Vegas a total mystery when it comes to the playoffs, because their success will depend almost entirely on which version of Marc-Andre Fleury they get over any best-of-seven series. If it is the one that has the eight shutouts, they could beat any team. If it is the one that has self destructed and in more than 35 percent of his starts they will be done in round one.

Based on the way this season — and almost his entire career to this point — has gone it is going to be anybody’s guess as to which version shows up.

PHT Power Rankings: The NHL’s best under-the-radar performances

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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.