Marc-Andre Fleury

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Golden Knights looking like a major Stanley Cup threat

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Let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights for a bit, because they are starting to emerge as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference.

They enter Monday’s game in Edmonton in first-place in the Pacific Division and are one of the league’s hottest teams having won 10 of their past 12 games, while also owning a 14-5-2 record since the hiring of new coach Peter DeBoer.

It’s not just the recent results that make them such a threat right now in the West. It’s the fact they are starting to systematically dominate teams. It is the perfect storm of the right results and the right process.

So what’s happening in Vegas that is making them such a threat?

They have tightened things up defensively

Just to make it clear at the start: I was very critical of their decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant earlier this season and replace him with Peter DeBoer. Not because DeBoer isn’t a good coach (He is, as is Gallant), but because the problems in Vegas at the time seemed to be more of a goaltending issue than anything relating to coaching.

But fair is fair to DeBoer, and the Golden Knights have definitely improved their overall performance defensively.

The table below shows some of their 5-on-5 defensive metrics under the two coaches, including shot attempts against, shot attempt differential, expected goals against, goals against, and save percentage.

The goaltending still hasn’t been where they want it to be, and while they were still a top-10 team in some key defensive metrics under Gallant, they have been quite literally the league’s best under DeBoer.

The big change is in dramatic decrease in total shot attempts against, as well as the way they have cut down on the scoring chances and expected goals against. Even though the goaltending performance has remained similar, the defensive play in front of them has definitely improved.

The type of performance we are seeing from the right now is one that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams.

Robin Lehner gives them an intriguing option

Speaking of the goaltending situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how this situation unfolds down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise from the moment he was acquired in the expansion draft, and overall he’s been a rock for them in net. But the fact of the matter is that his overall performance has regressed this season, and outside of a handful of random games in February it hasn’t really consistently improved.

But with Robin Lehner now in the mix the Golden Knights have a very intriguing Plan B in place.

One of their biggest weaknesses the past two years has been the lack of a quality backup behind Fleury. It forced Fleury to take on a huge workload (not great for a goalie in his mid-30s) and had no safety net in case of an injury or poor play.

They not only have a great Plan B, their Plan B also happens to be one of the league’s best goalies the past two years, and he is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline.

Forget the star power and reputations, there is no reason why that job should not be up for debate and an open competition down the stretch. If one of them emerges and solidifies that spot, it would take this team to an entirely different level.

Max Pacioretty has been amazing, and Mark Stone will be back

The Golden Knights may not have a true superstar in their lineup, but their top-end talent is legit. Leading the way is Pacioretty (he got a mention in this week’s MVP Power Rankings) who is having one of the best seasons of his career, driving play like a champion and scoring at close to a 40-goal pace.

As a team, they have six forwards scoring at a 20-goal pace over 82 games, while they have also played the past six games (4-2-0 record) without perhaps their best overall forward, Mark Stone.

They should have a very manageable playoff path

This might be one of the biggest things working in their favor.

There are a ton of factors that go into winning in the playoffs, from playing well, to health, to goaltending, to luck, to simply getting the right matchups.

Obviously nothing is a guarantee, but whether the Golden Knights finish first or second in the Pacific Division they should have an extremely manageable path through at least the first two rounds. They would almost certainly be favorites against any team they play in Rounds 1 and 2, while there remains a pretty significant gap between the top contenders in the Western Conference and the next tier of contenders.

Look at it this way: As of publication on Monday afternoon, only one of their potential playoff matchups in Rounds 1 or 2 (Edmonton) of the playoffs ranks higher than 15th in the league in points percentage, while several of their potential early matchups (Calgary, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Arizona, Nashville) are all in the 18-23 range.

It is entirely possible that they would not have to play a top-15 NHL team in the playoffs until a potential Western Conference Final matchup.

They still have to play the games and they still have actually win once they get there, but the way things are shaping up right now with their overall play and potential postseason path the Golden Knights should be one of the top teams to watch for coming out of the Western Conference.

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.

Robin Lehner to make Golden Knights debut; Mark Stone injured

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The Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the league’s hottest teams over the past month and will be looking to extend their current winning streak to eight games on Friday night when they host the Buffalo Sabres.

Coach Pete DeBoer had some significant lineup news ahead of the game on Friday afternoon, including a potentially significant injury.

First, is the news that big trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner will be making his first start in goal for the team. The Golden Knights acquired Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks just ahead of the NHL trade deadline on Monday for a draft pick and a prospect. Lehner has been one of the league’s best goalies for the past two years and alongside Marc-Andre Fleury should give them one of the league’s best goaltending duos.

The far more serious news, though, was the announcement that forward Mark Stone will not play on Friday due to a lower-body injury.

DeBoer had no immediate information on how long Stone could be out, only to say that he is still being evaluated.

When asked if it could potentially be a long-term injury DeBoer said “There’s always fear. We don’t know, but we’ll see,” via NHL.com.

Stone is one of the league’s best all-around forwards and has not only been a point-per-game player for the past three seasons, he is also one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He finished the 2018-19 season as the top runner-up for the Selke Trophy, something that has become almost unheard of for a winger.

The Golden Knights enter Friday’s game in first place in the Pacific Division, four points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks.

Related: Blackhawks trade Robin Lehner to Golden Knights

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.

 

Golden Knights’ Fleury shuns spotlight, keeps going strong

LAS VEGAS — 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.”

Blackhawks trade Robin Lehner to Golden Knights

Blackhawks trade
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The Vegas Golden Knights have had a need for goaltending depth all season, and they addressed in a massive way on Monday.

The Golden Knights acquired goalie Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for Malcolm Subban, defense prospect Slava Demin and a second-round pick.

The Toronto Maple Leafs also became involved in this trade to make it a three-team trade and will retain a portion of Lehner’s salary.

From the Maple Leafs:

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced today that the club has acquired Vegas’ fifth-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft in exchange for forward Martins Dzierkals to complete a trade between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vegas Golden Knights. The Maple Leafs have retained a portion of goaltender Robin Lehner’s salary as part of the transaction.

CapFriendly lays out of the important details.

This is a significant move and could play a huge role in the Pacific Division race, as well as the entire Western Conference playoffs. Goaltending has been one of the single biggest issues for the Golden Knights all season due to Marc-Andre Fleury having a down year and the team having no reliable backup behind him. The latter part for the past two years has resulted in Fleury taking on a huge workload, which is not ideal for a mid-30s goalie.

That will no longer be an issue.

Lehner is not only a massive upgrade over Subban and the Golden Knights’ other backup options, he also serves as a great safety net in case Fleury slumps or is injured.

He has been one of the league’s best goalies the past two years and is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The latter point is why it makes sense for the Blackhawks to make this move. The team is going nowhere this season and there was no guarantee they would be able to re-sign him. Holding on to him for what would almost certainly be a doomed Hail Mary attempt at a playoff spot this season would have been managerial malpractice on the part of the Blackhawks.

They had to get something here.

Chicago also traded defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames on Monday for a third-round draft pick.

 

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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: Saturday of surprises, including a Martin Jones shutout

Martin Jones shutout The Buzzer 3 stars highlights
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Three Stars

1. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

Saturday ended up being an oasis in the desert for struggling California goalies. Both Jones and Jonathan Quick earned their first wins of 2020.

Jones managed his win most impressively, pitching a 39-save shutout, his first goose egg of the season. Minnesota fired quantity over quality at Jones, but it was quite the volume nonetheless. This marks quite the turnaround, as Jones allowed 13 goals over his last three appearances.

Despite this performance, Martin Jones sits under 90 percent on the season with an .894 save percentage. Yes, the Sharks defense can be porous, but Jones’ freefall remains a huge disappointment for a franchise that carried lofty aspirations.

2. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings

Consider this a dual prize for Toffoli and Quick, who helped the Kings steal the Stadium Series skirmish from Colorado.

Toffoli scored all three of the Kings’ goals, including the late game-winner and an empty-netter. The latter tally pushed Toffoli to the first hat trick in an outdoor game. Toffoli already ranked as one of the bigger trade target fish in a shallow pond, but a hot streak could puff him up, and he now has four goals in his last two contests.

Quick faced the busier evening overall, though, and was almost perfect. He made 32 out of 33 saves, only allowing a goal when he made the wrong choice to grab his stick during a scrambly sequence for L.A.

3. Kyle Turris, Nashville Predators

If people can resist thinking of Turris as a $6M player — or at least maybe contain it to the occasional reference — they might be heartened by his OK play. It’s easier after outputs like Saturday when Turris scored a goal and two assists as Nashville gutted out a win against St. Louis. Turris has more goals (8 to 7) and points (27 to 23) than last season. It’s easy to forget that he was limited to 55 games played in 2018-19, but either way, it’s reasonable to see that he exceeded those totals in 50 games this season.

Still, there’s novelty to choosing Turris over, say, Patrick Kane (who also scored a goal and two assists). Other honorable mentions include Semyon Varlamov (42 saves, but in a 1-0 loss) and Antti Raanta (36 of 37 saves, kept Alex Ovechkin snakebitten).

Speaking of Ovechkin, his next shot at 700 goals comes on Monday. NBCSN will carry that game against the Golden Knights, with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. ET.

Highlights of the Night

Tyler Seguin won it for Dallas in overtime with a mind-melter:

Brad Marchand just going to keep doing this, isn’t he?

Factoids

  • The Flames are becoming masters of bad starts. They’ve allowed a goal on the first shot they faced nine times this season, the most of any team in the NHL. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Fear the Fin’s Sheng Peng points out that Martin Jones has been a menace to Minnesota. Jones generated three of his four shutouts from the past to seasons against the Wild.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury became the 18th goalie to reach 60 career shutouts. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Auston Matthews reached 42 goals and 71 points on Saturday. Matthews became the first Leaf to score 70+ points by 59 games played since Mats Sundin, who got there in 57 back in 1996-97. (NHL PR)
  • The Lightning set a new franchise record with their longest home winning streak at 11 games and counting. (NHL PR)

Scores

BOS 4 – DET 1
NSH 4 – STL 3
TBL 5 – PHI 3
EDM 4 – FLA 1
SJS 2 – MIN 0
DAL 4 – MTL 3 (OT)
TOR 4 – OTT 2
LAK 3 – COL 1
CHI 8 – CGY 4
ARI 3 – WSH 1
VGK 1 – NYI 0

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.