By reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup final in their first NHL season with a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets Sunday, the Vegas Golden Knights continue to be the most compelling story in sports right now for a lot of reasons. The storylines are obvious — reaching the Cup final as an expansion team with a group of cast-offs, seeing a city ravaged by tragedy healing as the Knights’ story unfolds. It’s a feel-good tale from top to bottom, even here in hockey Mudville.
The baseline for this unlikely and dramatic script, however, is being written by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who will be looking for his fourth Stanley Cup ring with the Golden Knights after winning his first three with the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins. Simply put, the 33-year-old Fleury has never been better in the post-season. Without the Flower, this most compelling of stories likely would have come to an end by now.
Fleury did it to the Jets Sunday with 31 saves and he today catches his breath before the Cup final with a post-season record of 12-3, a save-percentage of .947, a goals-against average of 1.68 and four shutouts. Fleury never put up numbers like that with Sid the Kid and Gino with the Penguins — his best previous post-season came in 2007-08 when he went 14-6 with a .933 and a 1.97 GAA.
After losing the first game of the series against the Jets — a great story in their own right — Fleury stopped pucks at a .956 clip in the final four games as the Knights won the series in five games. It’s hardly a news flash, but any team that gets goaltending like that, be it during the regular season or playoffs, is going to win a lot more games than it loses. So, you get what we have here.
Fittingly, on this Vegas roster made up of spare parts, Fleury’s performance this season is also a tale of redemption. Let’s not forget, during the 2017 Eastern Conference final between Pittsburgh and the Ottawa Senators, coach Mike Sullivan replaced Fleury with Matt Murray in Game 3. Fleury was a cheerleader from the bench the rest of the way as the Penguins prevailed over the Sens in seven games and then beat Nashville in six in the Cup final. Then, as the story goes, Fleury was deemed expendable and went to Las Vegas.
ON THE WALL
Add me to the growing camp that believes Edmonton Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan can use ink when putting Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on left wing alongside Connor McDavid to start next season. For all the questions that come with a lousy season like the Oilers had, where RNH plays next year should not be one of them. Despite a disappointing result for Team Canada at the World Championship, RNH again looked right at home with McDavid.
“Getting the chance to play together over here has been great,” said Nugent Hopkins, who was slotted in with McDavid by coach Bill Peters “This is such a short tournament and it’s easier to just pick up where you left off than try to create new chemistry. Every game we play together, I feel we get better and that will only help us be more effective when we get back to Edmonton next season.”
Nugent-Hopkins scored 5-3-8 in 10 games. Just as he did at the end of the regular season with the Oilers, RNH showed he’s smart enough and quick enough to play with McDavid. He knows where to be and when to be there, and that’s half the battle when you’re trying to read off what McDavid wants to do. I don’t see any reason whatsoever why we should see Nugent-Hopkins listed as anything but a LW when camp opens. What say you?
An interesting Tweet from Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer the other day about a former Oiler first-rounder, Magnus Paajarvi, I haven’t given any thought to in years.
As it stands now the Oilers will be needing an inexpensive depth LW who can skate and PK.
Magnus Paajarvi make sense?
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) May 19, 2018
Given the corner GM Peter Chiarelli has painted himself into, there’s a need for some value contracts going into 2018-19. I’m just not sure Paajarvi, coming off a contract with an $800,000 cap hit, is a value deal. Cheap? Yes. Value? I’m generally not big on encores unless a team really screwed up by letting a guy get away in the first place, and I don’t put sending Paajarvi away for David Perron in that category. I don’t see the need for a do-over here.