Fleury’s busy start to Game 3 includes huge stop on Ovechkin

Sometimes it’s tempting to boil the 2018 Stanley Cup Final down to Alex Ovechkin versus Marc-Andre Fleury, even though it’s far more than that. The early stages of Game 3 explain some of those urges.

Ovechkin has been buzzing so far in his first home Stanley Cup Final contest, but perhaps “MAF” was feeling some envy from all the attention Braden Holtby received – Pat Sajak mentioned it during his introduction – for his Game 2 stop on Alex Tuch. During the early moments of Game 3, Fleury made a sprawling save on a great one-timer chance as Evgeny Kuznetsov set up Ovechkin for what sure looked like a goal in the making.

(Kuznetsov was shaken up early on. He seems to be OK, or at least “playoff OK.”)

Add this to the growing number of great Fleury-on-Ovechkin saves, though this one wasn’t as crucial as his two memorable stops from two different Game 7 situations.

That great save wasn’t the only noteworthy moment involving Fleury. The Capitals seemingly made it 1-0, but the play was called off thanks to interference by Devante Smith-Pelly, who was also penalized.

Smith-Pelly was shown mixing it up with Fleury later on in the first period, so the tough forward clearly wasn’t happy with the call.

Fleury is worth monitoring as the night and series goes on, as his concussion history makes any collision a cause for extra concern. So far, so good though.

If Ovechkin keeps up these efforts, Fleury will need to be sharp all night.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH GAME 3 LIVE]

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• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Will Stanley Cup Final continue to be tough on Fleury, Holtby?

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The Washington Capitals scored more goals on Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 1 (four) than the Los Angeles Kings managed in getting swept by Vegas (three), yet the Golden Knights won 6-4.

The thing is, while you can quibble with a goal here or there (the optics on this one weren’t great), it’s tough to pin the high-scoring nature of that Game 1 on Fleury or his counterpart Braden Holtby. Game 1 featured the sort of frenetic, thrilling pace that can transform casual hockey fans into fanatics, yet it certainly must not have been easy on the goalies or coaches.

NBC Sports Washington delves into some of the Capitals’ specific defensive issues, but to keep it simple, Holtby can only do so much when players like Reilly Smith receive chances like these.

And, frankly, there were some breakdowns that didn’t result in goals. Fleury’s save in tight on Alex Ovechkin early in Game 1 was easily forgotten, yet crucial.

Ultimately, the Golden Knights beat Holtby five times (adding an empty-netter for insurance) on 33 shots on goal, while Fleury made 24 of 28 saves. To quickly summarize how unusual this must have felt for both netminders, consider how they played before Monday: Fleury allowed just six goals in his last four games (now 10 in five, all wins), while Holtby generated two consecutive shutouts to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So, the question is: will the rest of this series be as unkind to the goalies as Game 1 was? Let’s ponder the arguments for and against such thoughts while realizing that we’re unlikely to see many more 10-goal games.

Energy

The significant layoff between the Capitals’ Game 7 against Tampa Bay (Wednesday, May 23) and especially the Golden Knights closing out Winnipeg in a Game 5 (Sunday, May 20) meant that both teams had the sort of fresh legs you rarely see four rounds into the postseason. An electric Vegas crowd ratcheted that energy up another level.

Chances are, as this series goes along, the energy will ebb and flow. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference certain breaks make, too; while Game 1 and 2 feature the usual one-day break between contests, that’s not uniform across the remainder of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Such gaps could be a godsend for the Capitals, who’ve played four more games than the Golden Knights and have been asking a lot of 32-year-old Alex Ovechkin. That said, those gaps in the schedule may, conversely, make it that much easier for the Golden Knights to maintain their often-relentless style.

Interestingly, both teams managed to limit chances off the rush in Game 1, despite the otherwise chaotic nature of that contest.

It’s not just fatigue that might slow this series down to the goalies’ liking.

Both coaches will get more familiar with each team as this series goes along, from additional video of their opponents’ structure to a deeper understanding of which matchups to exploit and which ones to avoid. Barry Trotz is one of the NHL’s great defensive thinkers, while Gerard Gallant’s team showed that they can grind through a low-scoring series against Los Angeles, so expect adjustments.

Settling down vs. irresistible forces

Beyond those tweaks, it’s simply likely that Fleury and Holtby will flat-out play better.

Consider how “The Flower” has responded recently to relative “off” nights. After allowing four goals in a Game 4 loss and three in a Game 5 win against San Jose, Fleury shut out the Sharks to eliminate them in Game 6. The Jets scored four goals in a Game 1 win against Vegas, then Fleury allowed two or fewer goals in four consecutive victories.

Holtby’s shown resilience in general in 2017-18, bouncing back from a rare rough regular season to produce some of the best playoff work of his career (which, despite Washington’s disappointments, is saying something).

Still, there are some reasons to expect additional lows with potential highs.

[Fleury’s playoff work against Washington, Ovechkin isn’t as good as you think]

Consider this: only one of Game 1’s 10 goals came on the power play. When you note how big a factor special teams has been for Washington in particular (17 power-play goals for, 16 against in 20 games; Vegas has given up and generated 10 PPG), that could offset schematic improvements.

And, yes, Ovechkin shooting from “his office” makes for a unique threat, but maybe Vegas has the best training one can ask for after limiting Patrik Laine in the Western Conference Final?

Ovechkin will probably get his goals, which he didn’t in Game 1 (he did nab an assist, though). Vegas’ vaunted top line generated plenty of offense, even beyond goals for Reilly Smith and William Karlsson. Depth players are already making their presences felt, so it’s easy to see that both teams sport the sort of supporting casts you usually need to make it this far.

On the other hand, Trotz and Gallant will surely try to clean up all of those high-danger chances. These shot charts probably raise their blood pressure (via Natural Stat Trick):

***

To the relief of the coaches and goalies, some of that manic energy will subside. Rusty mistakes will turn to safe plays. We might even see a shutout or two.

For those of us who loved just about every minute of Game 1, let’s hope it doesn’t slow down too much.

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• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

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.

Defenders as important to Fleury, as he is to Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury has been the foundation for the Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Yet while he has a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, he’ll be the first one in the locker room to credit the defensemen in front of him.

“It’s a team game – win as a team, lose as a team,” said Fleury, who looks to become the 11th goaltender in NHL history to have his name on the Cup at least four times – and the fourth of that group to win with multiple teams.

“These guys are a big part of our success. We’re well balanced, we got some veteran guys, some younger guys, got some offensive guys, some defensive guys playing together. Those guys have been rallying all playoffs, trying to help me out, blocking shots and letting me see the puck, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

The pairings of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, and Colin Miller with Luca Sbisa or Jon Merrill, have helped the Golden Knights become a very tight defensive team during the playoffs, something that will have to carry into Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena, on Monday against the Washington Capitals.

Schmidt has developed into the team’s top defenseman after struggling to find consistent ice time in Washington last season, when he averaged 15:29 on the ice. The fifth-year pro leads the Golden Knights with an average 22:14 on the ice and brings a familiarity to the Final, having played with Washington’s top scorers Evgeny Kuznetsov (24 points) and Alex Ovechkin (22), who rank first and second, respectively, in overall playoff scoring.

“I know a lot of those guys, I know what they like to do,” said Schmidt, who has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the postseason. “For what I want to do on the ice, it helps me and I think it helps our group as well that we’ve had success against them. But it’s a whole other type of animal this time of year.”

The Golden Knights swept the regular-season series against Washington, winning 3-0 on Dec. 23 in Vegas and 4-3 on Feb. 4 in D.C.

With five more Capitals have double-digit points – Nicklas Backstrom (16), John Carlson (16), T.J. Oshie (15), Lars Eller (13) and Tom Wilson (11) – Vegas will need one last big effort from a defensive group that has helped allow the second-least number of goals among playoff teams that have played 10 games.

Washington coach Barry Trotz said he knows the Golden Knights have three dynamic duos that each feature one offensive guy who can skate and move the puck – that being Miller, Theodore, and Schmidt – paired with more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to get physical, block shots and slow the opposing team’s pace – such as Sbisa, Engelland, Merrill and McNabb.

“But they still bring some offense, too,” Trotz said. “They play 5-5-5 all three zones just as we talk about with the Capitals. Watch the TV, you see five guys in the picture, then you’re doing good.”

Schmidt said using speed against them worked during the regular season, by moving their feet more than Washington did, and helping to develop plays in transition. But again, this is the Stanley Cup Final, and Schmidt said he knows Washington can skate well and will be a challenge.

“I think another thing is just making sure you’re really disciplined against this team,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to make sure you stay out of the penalty box, keep Ovechkin off the power play and keep that unit off the power play.”

To Vegas’ credit, however, it does have the fourth-best penalty kill in the playoffs, stopping 82.5 percent of the power plays it has seen. And, as Sbisa said, that circles back to Fleury and the chemistry that’s been built with the defensive pairings.

“That bond is definitely there,” Sbisa said. “You don’t have to worry about anything else, play it loose, play to your strengths and that’s what we’ve been doing as a group. The six Ds that are playing that night, they’re tight; we play as a three-man group (with Fleury). Flower’s a guy that doesn’t take too much credit for himself, even though he should, because he’s been that good and it’s obviously nice to hear stuff like that coming out of his mouth. But he definitely deserves all the credit here.

“As a D-man, knowing that you have the best goalie in the world behind you, saving you when something happens, it makes a huge difference because it allows you to play your game. Praise has to go both ways.”

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• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Conn Smythe Power Rankings: It is still Fleury’s to lose

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Now that the Stanley Cup Final is officially set with the Washington Capitals taking on the Vegas Golden Knights, the field of potential Conn Smythe trophy winners has been cut down once again.

The clear leader remains the same, and it is still Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Not only is he still in the lead, there is a pretty strong argument to be made that barring a complete collapse in the Stanley Cup Final it might be his whether the Golden Knights win or lose the series. It would not be entirely fair to say he is the only reason Vegas has reached this point (that top line is pretty spectacular, too), but he is the foundation of the team and is having a pretty historic run through the playoffs that has to be considered one of the best performances of all-time.

Just consider that of the 139 goalies that have appeared in at least 15 playoff games in a single postseason none have recorded a higher save percentage than Fleury’s .947 this season. Along with that he already has four shutouts, including two in series-clinching wins.

If Vegas wins, he is the slam-dunk winner and leading a first-year expansion team to a championship (which would be his fourth) becomes the defining moment of his career and perhaps the last thing he needs to secure a spot in the Hall of Fame.

If Vegas loses, it still might be a good enough performance to earn him the award.

There is precedent for such a thing to happen as it has been awarded to a member of the losing team five times, with the most recent time coming in 2002-03 when Jean-Sebastien Giguere won it in a losing effort for the Anaheim Ducks.

Ron Hextall (Philadelphia Flyers, 1987), Reggie Leach (Philadelphia Flyers, 1976), Glenn Hall (St. Louis Blues, 1968), Roger Crozier (Detroit Red Wings, 1966) were the others.

It takes a pretty spectacular effort to get that sort of recognition (Giguere’s performance in 2003 was one of the greatest goaltending performances in playoff history that included five shutouts. Leach scored what is still a league-record 19 playoff goals in 1976) and Fleury might be at that level right now.

While he is the clear leader, that does not mean there are not other players that could still overtake him over the next two weeks.

Let’s take a look at the rankings.

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. As talked about above, if he maintains this level of play throughout the next round it might be good enough whether his team wins or not.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. If there is anybody that is going to overtake Fleury right now the leading contender would have to be Ovechkin. He has been, quite simply, fantastic for the Capitals. After scoring the eventual game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final he now has 12 goals in 19 playoffs games, is averaging more than a point-per-game (22 points in 19 games), now has a pair of game-winning goals, and has just been a dominant figure in the Capitals’ run to the Final. Everything is going through him offensively. None of this should change your perception of Ovechkin as a player because he has always done this in the playoffs. The only difference this season is everything is falling in place around him to finally get him and the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Since reclaiming his starting spot in Game 3 of the first-round Holtby has been everything the Capitals have needed him to be. They have won 12 out of the 18 games he has started, he has a .924 save percentage which is very close to his career postseason mark of .930 (which is one of the best all-time), and he just pitched back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Just like Ovechin, Holtby has always been a big-time performer in the playoffs for the Capitals, even in defeat.

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. It seems like we are not paying enough attention to the fact that Kuznetsov enters the Stanley Cup Final as the leading scorer in these playoffs with 24 points in 19 games. He is also riding a 10-game point streak that included a run where he scored a goal in six out of seven games. That stretch included a series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a goal that might be the defining moment of the Capitals’ playoff run given their history against the Penguins. In Game 5 of that series he scored a game-tying goal in the opening minute of the third period to help shift the series in their favor.

5. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. While Fleury is shutting teams down in net, Marchessault has been the driving force behind the Vegas offense. He is leading the team with 18 points in 15 games and was a game-changer in the Western Conference Final against the Winnipeg Jets, recording seven points in five games, including a pair of two-goal games. Not only has he proven that his 30-goal season a year ago was not a fluke and that he is a legitimate top-line player in the NHL, but that contract extension he signed with Vegas that will pay him $5 million per year is starting to look a steal for the Golden Knights.

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.