Getty

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing the best hockey of his life

10 Comments

After their overtime win in San Jose on Monday night, the Vegas Golden Knights are just two wins away from reaching the Western Conference Final. The win was aided, in large part, by another spectacular performance from starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury as he held off an early Sharks onslaught, stopped 39 out of 42 shots on the night, and made one of the best saves of the playoffs when he absolutely robbed Logan Couture with this stunning glove save in overtime.

It was only a few minutes later that William Karlsson wired a rocket of a shot off the rush just under the crossbar, beating Martin Jones to give Vegas the 4-3 win.

For Fleury, it was his latest great performance in a playoff run that has the makings of being one of the best of his career. He already has three shutouts in seven games, has allowed only 10 goals, and has already stopped at least 35 shots in a game three different times.

When Vegas went into the expansion draft process and began building its roster from scratch it was pretty obvious that it was going to end up getting a legitimate No. 1 goalie with its selection from Pittsburgh. It was also pretty obvious that given the ages, contract situations, and long-term outlook for both players that the Penguins were going to try and direct Fleury Vegas’ way, preferring to keep the younger, cheaper and back-to-back Stanley Cup winning Matt Murray. Almost immediately Fleury became the face of the NHL’s newest team and was expected to, at the very least, give it a chance to compete on most nights. But along with everything else unfolding with the Golden Knights this season there probably wasn’t anybody that expected him to be this good.

Quite simply, Fleury is playing the absolute best hockey of his career right now.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Fleury’s career arc is a strange one to look back on because it’s had a little bit of everything over the past 15 years. Potential. Hope. Success. Devastating lows. Redemption. And then a new beginning where hope and potential were again focal point.

When it all began, he was an 18-year-old rookie — the rare goalie to go No. 1 overall in the draft — that was supposed to be a foundational piece for what was a bad, rebuilding team. Early in his career he delivered on that potential by helping to backstop the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter.

After that, however, things kind of fell apart for him in a series of playoff meltdowns between 2010 and 2014 that helped torpedo some potential lengthy playoff runs in Pittsburgh and make him more of a league-wide joke than anything else. It wasn’t all because of his play, but his play was a big a part of it. Between 2010 and 2015, his .895 postseason save percentage was 20th out of 22 goalies that appeared in at least 20 games, finishing ahead of only Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov. At one point he lost his starting job in the playoffs to Tomas Vokoun. But after a change in goalie coaches and work with a sports psychologist, his playoff performances — as well as his regular season performances — in recent years started to improve. Even then things had a way of working against him.

An injury at the end of the 2015-16 season cost him his starting job as Murray stepped in and played brilliantly on his way to a Stanley Cup. In 2016-17, he had a chance for redemption when the situation was reversed and an injury to Murray — who had taken over as the team’s starter — allowed Fleury to regain his starting job through the first two rounds where he was probably the biggest reason the Penguins were able to continue advancing. It was pretty much the exact opposite of the previous five playoff runs in Pittsburgh where the goaltending was sinking what was often times an otherwise good team.

Murray eventually returned, regained his starting spot, and closed out the final two rounds on the way to another Stanley Cup. His career in Pittsburgh ended with him handing the Stanley Cup to the guy that replaced him.

And with that, a new beginning in Vegas waiting for him where he would again be a foundational cornerstone for what was supposed to be, for now, a bad, building team. In this case, he was quite literally, one of the first pieces of the team. At first, the success or failure of Vegas in the first few years of its existence always seemed like it was going to hinge on Fleury’s ability to carry an expansion team that would be short on talent. That is, of course, until we realized just how badly many of the NHL’s other general managers were going to screw up the expansion draft process and help build an immediate powerhouse. But even with Vegas having far more firepower offensively — and a shockingly better blue line — than anybody could have reasonable expected Fleury has still be a significant part of the success.

Even though he has been a part of three Stanley Cup winning teams, I’ve always argued that the best hockey of his career before this season came during the 2007-08 season, the year the Penguins actually lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Detroit. Without him, that team probably wouldn’t have sniffed the Final that season and given the way that series was played on the ice it was something of a small miracle that they actually won two games in the series (they were outshot 222-142 and the only game they topped 25 shots on goal was a triple overtime game … where they were outshot 58-34. It was a one-sided series).

That was always the best hockey he ever played.

Until this season.

[Related: Conn Smythe Power Rankings]

First, the numbers are not only among the best in the league, they are also the best of his career. During the regular season he finished with a .927 save percentage that was fourth among all NHL goalies that appeared in at least 30 games. His even-strength percentage of .931 was sixth in the league. He has never finished higher in either category in any previous season.

He has continued that play into the playoffs.

When you combine his regular season and playoff numbers — as of Tuesday — he is currently sporting a .932 save percentage in his first 51 games this season. That includes seven shutouts.

Just looking back at his career he has never had a season where his total numbers (regular season and playoffs) were this good. The only year that comes close was the aforementioned 2007-08 season.

Here are his five best.

Again, outside of that 2007-08 performance there really isn’t another one on his resume that compares to this one.

On one hand you could point to this season, and especially that .960 postseason save percentage, and accurately point out that it is an unsustainable level of production. An incredible hot streak that will at some point end with an ugly regression to the mean. You would not be wrong to argue that. It will happen eventually. But even if he regresses a bit you can not take away the fact that he has re-written his postseason story in recent years. Since he was benched for Vokoun in the first-round of the 2013 playoffs, his postseason save percentage has been the third-best in the NHL over that stretch. This is not just a one-year thing for him.

You also can not take away what has already happened. He still had to stop those pucks this year and this postseason. He has stopped them better than just about any goalie in the league this season and better than he ever has in his career.

The fact it is happening this season, on this team, in this situation, only adds to it. If he backstops an expansion team anywhere near the Stanley Cup Final — and they absolutely could get there, and they absolutely could win it — there will not be anything in his career that matches it.

Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

————

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: Point is on point, Karlsson, Fleury combine for overtime magic

Getty Images
1 Comment

Monday’s results

Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Boston Bruins 2 (series tied 1-1): Tampa’s prospects of moving on in the series if they trailed it 2-0 heading to Boston would have been very poor. Instead, the Lightning rallied after a rough outing in a 6-2 loss on Saturday. Brayden Point, whose name you will read a few times here, was stellar putting up four points after throwing up a dud with a minus-5 on Saturday. Point’s line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat combined for seven points in the game as Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak struggled to find the same form they displayed in a combined 11-point Game 1.

Vegas Golden Knights 4, San Jose Sharks 3 OT (Vegas leads series 2-1): A third-third period comeback from the San Jose Sharks seemed to have them in the driver’s seat heading into overtime as they sought a second-straight victory in the free hockey periods. But it was a combination of Marc-Andre Fleury‘s brilliance in goal and William Karlsson‘s theatrics on offense that thwarted San Jose’s momentum and gave the Golden Knights a 2-1 series lead.

Three stars

Brayden Point, Lightning: A bit of a no-brainer here. Point was on fire on Monday, redeeming a particularly unsightly effort on Saturday with a four-point game. Point assisted on each of Tampa’s first three goals in the game and then plunged the final dagger in the Bruins with an empty-net goal late to cap off an impressive outing.

Marc Andre-Fleury, Golden Knights: Shelled once again on Monday night, Fleury was simply sensational, including a ridiculous save in overtime to keep the Golden Knights in the game. Fleury has yet to see fewer than 30 shots in a playoff game this year yet he holds a 6-1 record with a .960 save percentage.

William Karlsson, Golden Knights: What can you say about Wild Bill that hasn’t been said this season? No one expected him to do what he’s doing yet there he is, producing highlight after highlight, as was the case on Monday’s overtime winner. Karlsson’s goal to end overtime was unstoppable, a perfectly placed shot as he rushed down his off-wing and nestled the puck on the opposite side of Martin Jones, who had no chance.

Highlights of the Night

This filth from Wild Bill:

This insanity from Fleury:

EK9 with a beauty short side:

Andrei Vasilevskiy magic:

Factoids of the Night

Tuesday’s schedule

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins, 7:30 p.m. ET, (NBCSN) — series tied 1-1

Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets, 8 p.m. ET (CNBC) — series tied 1-1


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

The Buzzer: Fleury dominates again, Caps get huge win, Jets push Wild to brink

6 Comments

Three games on Tuesday night

Winnipeg Jets 2, Minnesota Wild 0 (Jets lead series 3-1)

Well things certainly escalated here, didn’t they? Josh Morrissey might be looking at a suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Eric Staal, while Wild coach Bruce Boudreau argued that the non-call on that play cost the Wild the game. It certainly did not help as it would have given them an extended two-man advantage, while Morrissey stayed in the game to set up the game-winning goal and help make a great defensive play to break up a potential breakaway chance for Nino Niederreiter.

Washington Capitals 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (Blue Jackets lead series 2-1)

Artemi Panarin was the best player on the ice — by a wide margin — with another multiple-point game and some sort of highlight reel play nearly every time he touched the ice. It was not enough for the Columbus Blue Jackets as the Washington Capitals were able to pick up the Game 3 win. It was Lar Eller’s double overtime goal that lifted the Capitals as they finally had a bounce go their way in a playoff game

Vegas Golden Knights 1,  Los Angeles Kings 0 (Golden Knights win series 4-0)

The first team advancing to the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is the Vegas Golden Knights after completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night with a 1-0 win in Game 4 of their series. If someone had told you that sentence would be possible at the start of the season you would have laughed at them, and rightfully so. Brayden McNabb, the player Los Angeles gave up to Vegas in the expansion draft, scored the only goal on Tuesday night.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. It was, once again, the Marc-Andre Fleury show on Tuesday night. He stopped all 30 shots he faced to record his second shutout of the series, both of them by a 1-0 margin. He was unbelievable in the series, allowing just three goals in the four games. Some of his saves on Tuesday were highlight reel stops, including this late third period save on Anze Kopitar to preserve the one-goal lead.

Then he did it again in the final minute, just getting enough of this Dustin Brown shot.

Remember when Fleury was a concern in the playoffs? Seems like an eternity ago. Since the start of the playoffs a year ago Fleury now has a .935 save percentage in 19 games with four shutouts.

2. Lars Eller, Washington Capitals. Facing the prospect of a 3-0 series hole the Capitals needed somebody to step up in a big situation and Eller just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help them get on the board in their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Was he the best player on the ice? No. Was he the Capitals’ best player? Probably not. He did score the biggest goal of the season for the Capitals — to this point — so that is good enough.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets. On the same day that it was announced he is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, Hellebuyck recorded his first career playoff shutout, stopping all 30 shots he faced in the Jets’ 2-0 win to move them one game closer to winning their first ever Stanley Cup playoff series.

Factoid Of The Night

It has to be all about the Vegas Golden Knights. What they are doing this season is nothing short of amazing.

Wednesday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. ET
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils, 7:30 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

————

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.

Vegas casino creates chocolate sculpture of Marc-Andre Fleury (Photo)

MGM
5 Comments

The Vegas Golden Knights will be hosting their first ever Stanley Cup playoff game on Wednesday night, so you can imagine what the excitement level is like around the city after an historic inaugural NHL season.

Part of the fun around Vegas this week includes the introduction of a five-foot tall, 90-pound chocolate sculpture of Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury inside the Bellagio Patisserie.

MGM

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it took assistant executive pastry chefs Yamilet Hillers and Jerome Jacob five weeks to create the Fleury sculpture using 90 pounds of chocolate over a base of Rice Krispie Treats, Styrofoam and wires. Fondant was used on the jersey and number part of the creation.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

You know you’ve done something in your life when someone creates a chocolate sculpture of you.

Jaromir Jagr got the sculpture treatment in 2014 when a tribute was created of him entirely out of marzipan. There was also the Chicago pastry school that took 150 hours and made a 100-pound chocolate Stanley Cup. And this chocolate Eddie Olczyk. But the real G.O.A.T. when it comes to the worlds of hockey and food colliding is a tie between the bacon Cup and the one made from poutine. Gorgeous and (probably) delicious!

If the Golden Knights achieve the unthinkable and go #CupIn1, then the Bellagio chefs will surely have to tweak the Fleury sculpture to include a fourth Cup for the netminder. You know, for the sake of accuracy.

————

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury worries; Blackhawks eliminated

Getty

Injury scares

Let’s hope that Tuesday presents dodged bullets instead of long-lasting injuries.

  • You can read more about Patrik Laine not returning to the Jets’ eventual overtime win against the Kings here. The early word is that it “isn’t sinister,” whatever that means.

Here is video of the unfortunate moment:

  • The Vegas Golden Knights must hold their breath again with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “MAF” took a shot off of his mask and did not return to Vegas’ eventual win against Vancouver. Considering his struggles with concussion issues, this is a big concern.

For what it’s worth, the team provided no official update, yet similarly to the Jets with Laine, the Golden Knights appear optimistic about Fleury avoided something serious. Either way, it puts a damper on this milestone.

Elimination updates

For the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Chicago Blackhawks won’t participate in the playoffs.

Chicago joins the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, and Buffalo Sabres as teams with the dreaded “e-” next to their names. The Red Wings postponed that fate by beating Philly. Edmonton delayed their own, too; they match the Blackhawks’ 69 standings points but hold a game in hand.

So, expect more names to get officially crossed off the list very soon. The Canadiens and Senators also see their days numbered.

Players of the Night

  • Artemi Panarin is a key figure in the Blue Jackets’ nine-game winning streak (read about how they’ve congested the Metro races in this post). Tuesday served as one of his best nights yet with Columbus, as “The Bread Man” collected a hat trick and also generated an assist. With 68 points on the season, it looks like he’ll hit 70+ points for his third season in a row, meaning he’s done so every year in the NHL. Perhaps he doesn’t need Patrick Kane to produce points, after all?

  • Leon Draisaitl collected a goal and three assists in the Oilers’ surprisingly bombastic 7-3 win against the Hurricanes, which didn’t really require Connor McDavid to dominate (he finished with one assist). Draisaitl’s quietly been showing that, while his contract is expensive, he’s probably the last of the Oilers’ worries.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Highlights

Matt Benning was basically enjoying batting practice during that Oilers win:

Tremendous pass from Thomas Vanek, who now has eight points in 11 games with Columbus.

Factoids

Learn why Alex Ovechkin‘s 602nd goal is his latest milestone here.

Nathan MacKinnon continues to tear up the NHL, as he’s second in league scoring with 91 points in just 65 games after collecting two assists on Tuesday. It really feels like he’s adding to his Hart Trophy argument every single game.

Scores

Islanders 4, Penguins 1
Blue Jackets 5, Rangers 3
Capitals 4, Stars 3
Oilers 7, Hurricanes 3
Panthers 7, Senators 2
Red Wings 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
Lightning 4, Maple Leafs 3
Jets 2, Kings 1 (OT)
Avalanche 5, Blackhawks 1
Golden Knights 4, Canucks 1
Sharks 6, Devils 2

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.