The second round matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins has an easy narrative: Alex Ovechkin vs Sidney Crosby. However, there is a one-on-one battle brewing between the pipes as Marc-Andre Fleury attempts to out-duel Braden Holtby, one of the best playoff goalies in recent NHL history.
Young netminder Matt Murray was fantastic for the Penguins during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup, having taken the job after Fleury got injured. When the veteran finally got a chance in net, he faltered and Pens head coach Mike Sullivan jumped back to Murray. But teams, fans, and media members alike were impressed by how Flower, as he’s known, handled the situation.
This year, the script has been flipped, with Murray, 22, forced to sit in the press box after getting injured in the first game of the playoffs. His return does not seem imminent.
So far, Fleury, 32, hasn’t posted amazing numbers, with a 2.43 goals-against average. That is mitigated by his .934 save percentage, far better than the meager .909 he posted in the regular-season and his career .908 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average in the postseason. And he has five wins in this year’s playoffs. That’s all that counts.
“It’s great,” Pens defenseman Ian Cole said of Fleury’s play so far. “He always has a ton of fun, but earlier this year was tough on him, for sure, like any competitor. The ability for him to step up and play at a world-class level is just very exciting.”
Holtby, due to some fluky goals in the first round, has fared worse.
The bearded enigma’s goals-against average and save percentage are 11th among playoff goalies at 2.46 and .919 respectively. Holtby’s stats this postseason are a wide gulf away from his career 1.93 goals against average and .936 save percentage. Holtby blamed himself for two of Pittsburgh’s goals on Thursday.
“Braden’s won us a lot of games,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said. “If he feels he can be better he will be better. That’s just the way he his in terms of his DNA. The next game will have to be his best and the next game will have to be our best.”
This series will feature high-end skill from the skaters, but the goaltending should not disappoint. Holtby, 27, is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist again this year. Nevertheless, he will have to contend with the fast and slick Pens, who excel at creating open ice. And unlike the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins have more precision finishers.
Meanwhile, Fleury seemed all but gone from the Penguins 10 months ago. He played in just 38 games in the regular season after appearing in 65 or more games most of his career. The French Canadian’s contract is up after next season.
On Thursday night, Fleury made 33 saves, many in mad scrambles in front of the net, winning the game for Pittsburgh.
“I was sliding everywhere, trying to make some stops,” Fleury said when asked about the end of Game One. “Trying to rise up to the challenge. I tried to keep the team in the game, save that lead. When you can do it, it’s a good feeling.”
Fans of both teams might disagree that Fleury’s nail biting performance was “fun,” as the netminder described it, but his teammates were thrilled.
“He was great,” Penguins forward Matt Cullen said after Game One. “He’s been great the entire playoffs. That was him at his best right there. He battles for us. It’s been awesome the way he’s played.”
Even Trotz sung Fleury’s praises.
“He’s won the Cup,” Trotz said. “His pedigree is very good. He’s a proven goaltender in this league.”
“I’m impressed,” the coach added.
Meanwhile, Trotz’s netminder, Holtby, suffered through Penguins breakaways and odd-man rushes. With the end-to-end action this series promises, goaltenders will be key — for most people.
“I’m just trying to get my shots in the net,” Caps forward Andre Burakovsky said Friday. “I don’t really care who’s standing there.”
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