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Fleury’s past playoff dominance of Capitals not what it seems

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final might be one of the most intriguing matchups the NHL has had in years given the number of different storylines both teams carry into it.

You have the absurd development that is a first-year expansion team playing in the series and having a chance to win the whole thing after not even existing at this time a year ago.

You have Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin playing in his first Stanley Cup Final.

Then there is the fact that Vegas general manager George McPhee spent years holding the same position with the Capitals and has had a hand in building both of these teams. It is remarkable theatre, all of it.

And then there is the Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals storyline.

Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final I wrote about how the Capitals have had to face and overcome a lot of their previous postseason demons this year, from gut-punch losses, to having to once again face their arch-rival that had knocked them out in nine out of 10 previous postseason meetings, to being on the brink of letting a multiple-game series lead slip away.

To this point they have faced them all and conquered them all to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998 and only the second time in franchise history.

It is in this series that they will have to face the goalie that has helped shut down and eliminate two of the best Capitals teams of the past 10 years with a couple of stellar Game 7 wins in Washington. In 2009 it was Fleury robbing Ovechkin with a glove save on an early first period breakaway to help set the tone for a Penguins’ rout on their way to a Stanley Cup. Just one year ago it was Fleury blanking the Capitals with a 29-save shutout in another Game 7 to help the Penguins on their way to another Stanley Cup.

Given those two games and the results of both series it would be easy to look at this matchup as the Capitals having to face another postseason demon that has tortured them in the past. To a point that is kind of true.

Here is the weird thing about this matchup: the Capitals — and Ovechkin — have been able to get to Fleury quite a bit in their previous playoff matchups.

A lot, actually.

Some numbers…

— In his 14 career playoff games against the Capitals Fleury has managed only a .902 save percentage and has allowed at least three goals in eight of those games and at least four goals in four of those games. Only once (the aforementioned Game 7 shutout a year ago) has he allowed less than two.

— That .902 save percentage in matchups with the Capitals is one of his lowest marks against teams that he has seen more than once in the playoffs. Throughout Fleury’s career he has played at least 10 playoff games against six different teams and that .902 mark against the Capitals is one of his worst against any opponent.

  • In 11 games over two series against the Columbus Blue Jackets he has a .920 mark.
  • In 13 games over two series against the Detroit Red Wings it is .918.
  • In 17 games against the New York Rangers it is .924.
  • In 18 games against the Ottawa Senators it is .906.
  • In 14 games against the Capitals it is .902.
  • In 17 games agains the Philadelphia Flyers it is .898.

If you look at it on an individual game basis, six of Fleury’s 30-worst individual save percentage games in the playoffs have come against the Capitals. That also includes two of his 10 worst.

— On an individual level Ovechkin has had more goal-scoring success against Fleury than he has against any other goalie/team he has faced more than once in the playoffs. In 14 games against Fleury in the playoffs Ovechkin has scored 10 goals, a .714 goals per game average (that would be a 58-goal pace over 82 games).

For comparisons sake, In 13 games against the Flyers over two series in his career he has seven goals (a .538 average). In 33 games against the Rangers over five series he has 13 goals (a .380 average). In two series against the Penguins with Matt Murray in net he has five goals in 12 games (a .416 average).

Basically all of Fleury’s success and dominance of the Capitals in the playoffs comes down to a breakaway early in one game, and a Game 7 shutout that featured an Ovechkin shot being an inch in either direction from potentially changing the course of the game, series, and season for both teams.

Obviously given the circumstances those performances and saves will stand out, especially in the context of Fleury and the Penguins going on to win and the Capitals … well … not winning.

But from a big picture perspective Ovechkin and the Capitals’ issue against Fleury hasn’t been their ability to beat him. Because they do. In the two series against him they’ve both scored more than enough goals to win only to have their own goaltenders implode on themselves, or the defense to fall apart, or something else to go wrong. That kind of goes back to what the whole Alex Ovechkin — and the Capitals — playoff story has been like until this season: No matter how good things seem for him and the team, there is always that one thing that goes wrong at the wrong time. In a sport where there is such a razor thin line between success or failure, one shot, one play, one call can completely change everything. Or one early breakaway or one shot off the butt end of a goalie’s stick.

So what does this all mean for this series? Probably not much. Each series is its own independent event and what happened a year ago or 10 years ago really does not matter this season.

Maybe Fleury keeps playing the way he has through the first three rounds and stones the Capitals. Maybe Ovechkin scores five or six goals and Vegas lignts up Holtby for five goals a game and it happens to the Capitals again. Maybe Ovechkin scores five or six goals in the series and Braden Holtby is able to do is job at the other end and help the Capitals finally win hockey’s ultimate prize. Who is to know?

In the end it is just another intriguing storyline in what is probably one of the more fascinating Stanley Cup Final matchups we have ever seen. Ovechkin and the Capitals have arrived on the biggest stage after successfully rewriting their postseason narrative … and they have to face one of the key guys that has seemingly helped make that narrative what it is.

So far this postseason the Capitals have consistently been able to face those razor thin margins and previous postseason demons and come away on the right side of them.

It is kind of fitting that they get one more chance to completely change their story against one of their long-time foes.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?
• How Golden Knights were built
• How Capitals were built

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

Capitals vs. Golden Knights: Three questions about the Stanley Cup Final

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Can the Capitals figure out Marc-Andre Fleury? 

The Golden Knights netminder is sporting one of the best postseason save percentages of all-time among qualified goaltenders. His .947 has helped Vegas breeze through three rounds and continue their magical inaugural season. His low, medium and higher danger save percentages (per Corsica Hockey) are top two among goalies in these playoffs. Regression has to arrive at some point, right? 

Historically, Fleury’s numbers aren’t even close to what his put up this spring. But between the four fewer games Vegas has played than Washington and the extra rest built in between the Golden Knights’ series, he only needs to keep this up at for at most seven more games. 

We’ve all been waiting for Vegas to fall back to earth all season and it hasn’t happened. We’ve been waiting for Fleury to do the same in these playoffs. What’s another two weeks of playing out of this world? 

Will Vegas’ depth step up when needed?

Of their 30 goals by forwards over the course of 15 playoff games, only six have come their bottom six, with Cody Eakin accounting for three of them. Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson have led the way on the top line while Alex Tuch, James Neal and Erik Haula are right behind them on line No. 2.

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

Each series brings a new set of challenges and you Barry Trotz and his staff are looking for ways at slowing down that top line. If they cannot produce on a given night, someone else will need to contribute. Vegas’ top six has had their fingerprints all over their success this spring, and while their bottom six has had a knack of scoring some big, timely goals when they do, Washington could use this to their advantage. The Capitals have been aided by their depth throughout this entire run. Vegas hasn’t needed it. Only four more wins to go.

Who gets to lift the Stanley Cup second?

If the Capitals win, Alex Ovechkin will take the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Should the Golden Knights be victorious, de-facto captain and Vegas resident Deryk Engelland will likely be the guy. But who will they pass it to after taking a twirl and giving the Cup a smooch?

Brooks Orpik is the “old guy” on the team and is also the only Capital with experience playing in the Final. He has a ring, so he’s out. The logical choice for Ovechkin is his running mate who’s been through all the ups and downs the franchise has experienced since the 2005-06 season: Nicklas Backstrom.

Like the Capitals, it’s a pretty easy choice for the Golden Knights. He owns three Cup rings already and he’s been a huge reason for their success this season, which is why Marc-Andre Fleury will get the Cup from his former Penguins teammate. Fleury had to watch the last two Penguins titles from the bench as Matt Murray led them to glory. Now he gets a shot at winning his third straight title and could be be the goaltender who gets mobbed after the final buzzer in the clinching game.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?

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

Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

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.

Alex Ovechkin finally enjoying playoff run after hurdling second-round hump

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It wasn’t enough that the dragon was finally slayed. The elation pouring out of Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals after eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins wasn’t a sign that a second-round escape was their version of a Stanley Cup victory.

Through two games and two victories against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Ovechkin and the Capitals have shown that their mission isn’t complete. You could have excused them if they came out flat in Game 1, but it was clear from the start that they came ready to play, unlike their opponents.

And for Ovechkin, who has 10 goals and 19 points this postseason, he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, even as he approaches game No. 97 of the season Tuesday night in D.C. (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream).

The Capitals had made the playoffs 10 times in the Ovechkin era. Each year has ended in disappointment, with the Penguins and New York Rangers the authors of a combined six exits. Aside from 2013 when he was held to two points in seven games, the captain has been a key contributor in those attempts to win a Stanley Cup, and through 111 career playoff games, he has recorded 109 points, including 56 goals.

He’s obviously, he’s having fun. He’s producing. He’s all in,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “We asked our group to, if you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs maybe for the first time in a long time. He’s the face of the franchise, and as I said, as the face of the franchise you get a lot of the credit and you also get a lot of the blame. Because of that I think at times it’s taken some of the joy out of it too.”

[Plenty to figure out for Lightning ahead of massive Game 3]

You can tell by watching when he wins and when he loses just how much the game means to Ovechkin. The losses have been crushing over the years, but the goals — oh, so many goals — elicit joy from the 32-year-old that makes it difficult to not enjoy this run he and his teammates are on — unless you’re from Pittsburgh, of course.

A lot of the focus of Ovechkin’s postseason career has been on the lack of success, and rightly so. But while the Capitals as a team have failed numerous times, he’s been driving the ship as usual. Since 2005-06, Ovechkin has averaged 0.98 points per game in the playoffs, tied for fourth with Nikita Kucherov among all players with at least 50 games played.

While a lot of attention during the regular season was thrown the way of the Penguins, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals were there humming along towards an eighth division title since ’05-06 and a fourth straight 100-plus point season. Why didn’t the they garner more love, even while Ovechkin was threatening to hit the 50-goal mark for an eighth time? Probably because we had seen that movie before. A strong regular season, one marked with a division title and maybe a Presidents’ Trophy, and then things coming to a crashing end, thanks to the Penguins or Rangers or that spring’s hot goaltender. The approach from the outside has continually been “Show us what you got in April,” and with the expectations and pressure seemingly absent entering this postseason, success is happening.

“I think we’re just enjoying the time right now,” Ovechkin said before Game 2. “I don’t think we take the pressure too much right now and it’s helped us a lot.”

“I think the guys that have been here a while, and [Ovechkin] as well, he hasn’t talked about it,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I’m just guessing here, knowing him. He’s a competitive guy, and he’s taken some past failures pretty hard, and he’s not going to let this opportunity go to waste. He’s bringing it. So good for him. He’s leading the way.”

Back to that joy… It could have been an ugly off-season in Washington had the Capitals not found their way out of either of the first two rounds. Trotz is still without a contract beyond this season and general manager Brian MacLellan could have chosen to try and carve up his roster looking for different results next season. But Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Matt Murray on that breakaway in Game 6, thanks to an assist from Ovechkin.

Now in the conference final, it was the Lightning who carried the pressure of being favored in the series. Through two games, they’ve fumbled and the Capitals have taken advantage. Ovechkin has done his part with a goal and an assist in both Games 1 and 2.

“I think he’s taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs — not just on us, like this whole playoffs season,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “He’s taking it out on that, and he’s — there’s a reason he has 600 goals and he’s done all these wonderful things in the League. In the past he’s not had playoff success, and when you do get to taste a little bit of it, it really tastes good.”

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

‘Flower’ blossoms: Fleury back to being great playoff goalie

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Anyone who has played with Marc-Andre Fleury can tell he’s dialed in by watching his mannerisms.

Last year, he rubbed the shaft of his stick after making a save with it on Alex Ovechkin. This year, he continued a career-long tradition of rubbing the post as a sign of appreciation for keeping a puck out.

”That’s when you know he’s in the zone,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.

Fleury is in one of the best zones of his career in the playoffs with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have followed up a magical inaugural season with a trip to the Western Conference final. The goaltending of Fleury is the biggest reason they’ve gotten this far and is a continuation of his remarkable playoff reputation rehabilitation.

After taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and winning it all in 2009, Fleury lost four of the next five series he played and each postseason posted a save percentage under .900. He has since gotten his groove back, helping the Penguins win the Cup again a year ago, and now leads the NHL playoffs with a 1.53 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts.

”I don’t think it was anything physically that he changed,” former Penguins teammate and current Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It was all confidence-driven. He’s always been a guy who’s really competitive and really loose at the same time. I think it was just confidence. I think he needed a fresh start. Maybe he just needed a clean slate, and you perform better when you’re more appreciated.”

It’s impossible not to appreciate the impact ”Flower” has made in the desert as the face of a new franchise as he went 29-13-4 with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pacific Division-winning Vegas. The fresh start might have rejuvenated Fleury more than a decade into his career, but his bounce-back in becoming a great playoff goalie again is six years in the making.

The low point came in 2012. Fleury allowed 26 goals over six games to Philadelphia in a first-round exit. The next playoffs, backup Tomas Vokoun started more games, and it was fair to wonder if Fleury had lost it.

”You learn from losing,” Fleury said Wednesday. ”You learn from tough times and pressure and stuff like that. It made me a better goalie from it.”

Now-Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was there for some of the struggles but didn’t level them all on Fleury. By 2014, he noticed a different goalie.

”There was a period of time there where maybe (it was) not entirely his fault, a few things went wrong and it snowballed on him and he had a tough go there, I think, mentally for a couple springs,” Niskanen said. ”But by the time of my last year there he was really good again.”

The scars of another second-round exit led to more blame for Fleury, who was scapegoated for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not doing more after the Cup in 2009.

”Sometimes it’s the way your team plays in front of you,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who beat Fleury with the Rangers in playoff series in 2014 and 2015. ”Sometimes, like any other player, you might have a bad series or a bad playoffs and I think for a goalie if you have that, people are going to be all over you.”

Following a forgettable first-round loss to Hagelin and the Rangers in 2015, Fleury had one of his best regular seasons. But he was nevertheless replaced as Pittsburgh’s playoff starter by Matt Murray on the way to the Cup in 2016.

Before he played a substantial role in the Penguins’ second consecutive title run, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Vegas in the expansion draft. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose 2009 Capitals lost to Fleury in the second round, said Dave Prior was insistent on adding Fleury because the veteran goaltending coach felt there was more improvement to be made in his game.

”He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. ”He was excited and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been. We like the calming effect he has on this team. When he plays, he’s really good when you need him the most. Needless to say you don’t get to the third round in this league unless you got a goaltender that’s playing well.”

Fleury will be playing in the third round for the fifth time in his career, a testament to the 33-year-old’s willingness to adjust as he has gotten older, including eating the right food, training meticulously and allowing his body to recover.

”When you’re young, you eat whatever, you never hurt, I never stretched, I could do the splits, it was easier,” Fleury said. ”Now I got to do more to maintain that flexibility and comfortness in the net. The older you get, things tend to linger around longer and you got to find ways to feel loose and feel good when games come around.”

Players are rarely worried about Fleury being tight. Even when Murray took his starting job, Fleury didn’t let it affect his mood at the rink.

”For him it definitely wasn’t easy because I’m sure he knew how he good he is and everybody else knew how good he is,” Maatta said. ”He still kind of kept showing up smiling and being an awesome teammate all the time even though he was probably in a tough spot.”

The laughs during the bad times have endeared Fleury to teammates who watch his playoff success with Vegas with great joy.

”Cares about the group, has fun at the rink, competitive as heck, cares about the right things,” Niskanen said. ”It’s not surprising at all that he’s done as well as he has there. It’s surprising how well the team has done but not him specifically. He’s a really good goalie and a perfect fit for them.”

Freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
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NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub