James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Flower in bloom

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Look, I’m not disputing the chaotic beauty of a night brimming over-the-top with hockey action such as tonight. For fans of the game as a whole, having 12 contests to follow and all the storylines that come with it is a real buffet-style treat.


Still, Monday night’s modest threesome of games provided a gorgeous simplicity to counter tonight's upcoming mania. There’s something to be said for the opportunity to sit back and really focus on a small selection of games; for one thing, it usually provides the opportunity to truly pour over a story that maybe was getting neglected.


In today’s case, I’m talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ latest red-hot run (on a “macro” scale) and Marc-Andre Fleury’s sensational season (on a “micro” scale).



Since mid-February, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been playing great hockey – a fact that I’d guess has been obscured by a combination of Sidney Crosby’s continued health issues, the team’s other injury concerns and the New York Rangers’ seemingly insurmountable lead in the Atlantic Division. Feb. 5’s light slate of action shined a spotlight on Pittsburgh’s impressive work, though.


Beginning with an 8-5 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 11, the Penguins have been playing great hockey; they haven't lost consecutive games, for one thing. They won two games in a row, sandwiched a 6-4 win between the only two losses they've sustained and are now on a six-game winning streak. Overall, they’re 9-0-2 in their last 11 contests, placing them comfortably in fourth place in the East while likely making them curse the NHL’s somewhat-arbitrary “win your division and get a top-three seed” rule. (The Penguins are four points ahead of the “second-ranked” Boston Bruins and nine ahead of the Florida Panthers, who I’d wager are the only semi-respectable unit in the Southeast – at least right now.)


Of course, Evgeni Malkin is the obvious marquee star of it all. He earned an assist on a Chris Kunitz goal last night. (Kunitz has somewhat-predictably been a great depth forward this season, by the way.) Still, plenty of ink/digital ink has been spilled in praise of Geno, so I thought I’d turn the focus to the Penguins’ other well-known healthy star.



Marc-Andre Fleury is scorching hot right now, winning six games while receiving a non-decision in his last seven games.


Really, you can extend MAF's great play beyond the Feb. 11 marker to just-about New Year's. After going 0-5 with a nondecision from Dec. 29 through Jan. 11, Fleury's been almost inarguably the best goalie in the world. He followed that ugly beginning of 2012 with a nine-game winning streak and is 16-2-1 since Jan. 13. About the only (ridiculous) beef fantasy owners might have is that he only has one shutout; they might feel teased by the fact that he allowed a single goal in seven of those wins. (That really just shows how goofy a stat shutouts can be, even if I condone that weird goofiness because it gives you a reason to cheer when looking at box scores/fantasy results.)


Either way, it probably comes as little surprise that "The Flower" has some pretty ridiculous numbers thanks in part to the recent run. In fact, it prompted me to take a quick look at what the Vezina Trophy race might look like.



There will only be three finalists for the Vezina Trophy once the NHL Awards swing around, but in this case, I thought it would be fun to keep it at these four (in order of most wins):


Pekka Rinne: 36-13-7 in 58 games played; 2.30 GAA, .927 save percentage and four shutouts

Fleury: 35-14-3 in 55 GP; 2.29 GAA, .915 save percentage and three SOs

Jimmy Howard: 33-13-2 in 49 GP; 2.05 GAA, .923 save percentage and six SOs

Henrik Lundqvist: 31-12-5 in 48 GP; 1.82 GAA, .938 save percentage and eight SOs


Interesting stuff, huh? Lundqvist has Tim Thomas-like numbers – from the save percentage to the limited starts and great winning percentage. Interestingly enough, while Fleury prompted this study, I’d have to downgrade him because his save percentage isn’t up to snuff. I’d lean a bit toward Lundqvist at this point, but the three (or four, if you’re more forgiving) candidates all bring great stuff to the table.



Speaking of Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins faced a brief threat of the aging goalie lacking that needed freshness heading into the playoffs once it was revealed that Tuukka Rask will miss 4-6 weeks with a groin/abdominal issue. Bruins Gm Peter Chiarelli hopes to alleviate that concern with the (somewhat surprising) addition of Marty Turco, but it’s a situation to watch because another team has the opportunity to “Garth Snow” them by claiming Turco on waivers. (The Ottawa Senators seem like high-end candidates considering their issues with Craig Anderson, but there might be more.)


Turco won’t be eligible for the playoffs because that waiver deadline came and went during the trade deadline.



Blake Wheeler and the Winnipeg Jets are a great story. So is Bryan Little, who assisted on all three Jets goals in their impressive victory against the Buffalo Sabres, whose chances got a little bit dimmer on Monday night. It’s tough for me not to beat on this point, especially since it’s actually quite fantasy relevant, though: the Jets are wildly home-dependent. Then again, aside from the Florida Panthers (15 road wins), the rest of the Southeast contenders are similarly imbalanced with just 11 road wins apiece … Ray Whitney scored the Phoenix Coyotes’ lone goal yesterday. The Yotes’ loss allowed the idle Dallas Stars to take first place in the Pacific Division, which is muddled and flawed and interesting right now … Ben Bishop was called up from the minors and looks to make his Ottawa Senators debut tonight … Jonas Hiller made 21 saves in the second period and 34 overall in the Ducks’ 4-2 win. Meanwhile Corey Perry scored his 200/201 goals while Teemu Selanne’s assist tied him with his hero Jari Kurri for 19th all-time in NHL scoring with 1,398 points in a game that will probably be remembered more for those milestones than keeping Anaheim’s faint hopes alive in about a month ... BREAKING: the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Mikhail Grabovski to a five-year contract extension right as I posted this column. Great news for his bank account, but fantasy owners lose the possible boost from contract year greed.



Jeff Skinner’s concussion issues continue … Kimmo Timonen’s “lower-body injury” is actually a back injury. Someone get the Philadelphia Flyers’ an anatomy handbook … Michael Cammalleri (upper-body) won’t play against his old teammates tonight … Andrei Markov has been cleared for contact and even claimed he will play this season. Considering the Habs’ place in the standings, I must ask: Why? … Taylor Hall’s shoulder seems to be acting up again … Zach Parise’s hand isn’t broken … Steve Downie’s shoulder issues might be clarified today. It seems a little on the foreboding side, though. (Click here for the full injury list.)

James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
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