Cross Checks: Marc-Andre Fleury

Who should win the Vezina Trophy?

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
A lot of factors go into deciding who gets the Vezina Trophy for the top goaltender.

Is it just about numbers? And if that is the case, which statistic is most important?

Mike Smith has the most saves thus far (1,369 saves) and Ben Scrivens has the best save percentage, but it is safe to say neither goalie will take home the Vezina this season.

Josh Harding posted a league-best 1.66 goals-against average during a dominant start that made him a top candidate for the Vezina. But his battle with multiple sclerosis has kept him on the injured reserve since Dec. 31.

Marc-Andre Fleury leads the league with 31 wins, but that just raises another important question.

How much do you penalize a goaltender in the Vezina race for having a strong team in front of him?

Tuukka Rask is having another great season, but he plays on a very good team. Does that mean Ben Bishop is more deserving because he is helping his team win without Steven Stamkos?

Is Jonathan Quick automatically eliminated from consideration because he missed time with a groin injury? Also, Scrivens was a strong replacement for the Kings (before being traded to the Oilers), so is it more about the team's system than a Vezina-worthy season?

Is Carey Price the front-runner for the award? He would easily win if you base it on his dominant performance in the Olympics.

We've laid out the questions, now you give us the answer: Who should win the Vezina Trophy?

Make your voice heard. Go to Twitter @ESPN_NHL or Facebook or leave a comment below to let us know who you think should win the Vezina Trophy.
From the official NHL release:


NEW YORK (Nov. 4, 2013) – Minnesota Wild right wing Jason Pominville, Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and Washington Capitals left wing Jason Chimera have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending Nov. 3.


Pominville tied for the League lead in goals (4) and points (6), scoring in all three games to help the Wild (8-4-3, 19 points) earn four out of a possible six points. Pominville recorded Minnesota’s lone goal in a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Oct. 28. He then posted a season-high three points (2-1—3), including the game-winning goal, in a 4-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens Nov. 1. Pominville closed the week by registering 1-1—2, his third multi-point game of the season, in a 4-0 triumph over the New Jersey Devils Nov. 3. The 30-year-old native of Repentigny, Que., has scored in four consecutive games (6-2—8), his longest goal-scoring streak since Nov. 12-19, 2008 (4-2—6 in four games). He is tied for third in the NHL with 10 goals this season and also leads the Wild with 12 points, three game-winning goals and a +6 rating in 15 games.


Fleury posted a 3-0-0 record with a 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage as the Penguins (11-4-0, 22 points) won all four of their games to remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division. Fleury made 20 saves in a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Oct. 28 and 21 stops in a 3-2 triumph over the Boston Bruins Oct. 30. He capped the week by recording a season-high 37 saves in a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets Nov. 1, becoming the first netminder in the NHL to reach 10 wins. The 28-year-old native of Sorel, Que., is 10-2-0 in 12 appearances this season, ranking in the top 10 in the League in wins, goals-against average (1.83) and save percentage (.929).


Chimera tied for the League lead with six points (2-4—6) in three games, helping the Capitals (7-7-0, 14 points) pick up four out of a possible six points. He opened the week with 1-1—2, his second multi-point game of the season, in a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks Oct. 28. Chimera then posted a career-high four points (1-3—4) in a 7-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Nov. 1, stretching his goal-scoring streak to a career-long four games (4-5—9). His three assists also matched a career high, first accomplished March 25, 2007, as a member of the Blue Jackets. The 34-year-old native of Edmonton, Alta., has played in 14 games this season, ranking fourth on the Capitals with 11 points (5-6—11).

If it is possible to roll to a 7-1 record and boast the NHL’s runaway scoring leader and top netminder without much fanfare, then the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to do just that.

While much of the early-season attention has been focused on the Colorado Avalanche -- who visit the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins Monday night -- and on stretcher-borne players and supplemental discipline, the Penguins have managed to wreak havoc on opposing teams with workmanlike precision.

The Pens rank first in the conference, second in the NHL, in goals per game at 3.75 and a more than respectable eighth in goals allowed per game, and that number would be even better had rookie netminder Jeff Zatkoff not allowed six in the team’s only loss, which came to the Florida Panthers. The Pens’ power play is second in the league.

Sidney Crosby has scored at least a point in all seven games and with five multipoint games is threatening to run away with the scoring race at a ridiculously early point in the season, with seven goals (tied for the league lead) and 17 points, already five points up on the next players in the field. Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens’ oft-maligned netminder, is 7-0 and boasts a .930 save percentage and 1.84 GAA.

"But no one wants to talk about that," GM Ray Shero told

Instead, all discussion about Fleury either harkens back to his poor play in the past couple of playoff years, especially last spring, when he was lifted after Game 5 of the first round and did not start again, or projects to what might happen next spring when the playoffs begin again. The fact of the matter is that if Fleury somehow ran the table and didn’t lose a single regular-season game, the same questions would dog him when the postseason begins next spring. That’s life.

The same might be said for the entire team.

The Penguins were swept in the Eastern Conference finals last season by Boston and somehow managed to score only two goals during that series. Maybe that’s why Crosby’s otherworldly play has not garnered the attention it might otherwise have; given the team’s power outage against the Bruins when it most mattered, there might be a backlash that suggests regular-season heroics are relatively meaningless when it comes to the Penguins.

And while there might be some truth to that, it's worth noting that the Penguins did make it to the final four last spring, their first trip beyond the second round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. There is also something to be said for the organizational and individual determination to keep the focus where it needs to be: not on games that might happen in April and May but on games that are for sure happening in October.

"We’re not looking too far down the road here," Shero said.

The fact the Penguins have managed to come out of the gate in such dominating fashion is even more impressive given that top-six winger and Canadian Olympic hopeful James Neal has not played a game because of an upper-body injury. Likewise, Norris Trophy nominee Kris Letang also has been out of the lineup with a knee injury. The absence of those two key players has allowed others, such as rookie Olli Maatta, to shine. It’s believed the Penguins will keep the 22nd overall pick from 2012 beyond the nine-game threshold that starts the clock ticking on his entry-level contract.

Up front, veteran Jussi Jokinen, a healthy scratch at times in the playoffs, has chipped in offense with four goals and two assists and depth players such as Craig Adams and Chuck Kobasew also have been productive.

"So far the team has played pretty well," Shero said.

Letang is close to returning, although Shero said because the team is off after Monday’s game until Friday, there isn’t any rush to bring him back. Neal, however, because of his injury "is a little further away," Shero said.

As for the lack of buzz surrounding his team, Shero is Zen. He recalled when the Penguins, in his first season as GM in 2006-07, were collecting wins and points in spite of preseason predictions that they weren't yet ready, such as the case with Monday’s opponents, the Avs.

"We were that young team," Shero said.

Now, they’re content to let the Avs enjoy the attention.

"We’re fine with that," the GM said.
From the official NHL release:


NEW YORK (Oct. 7, 2013) – Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin, Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller and Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending Oct. 6.


Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (4), points (6), power-play goals (3), power-play points (5) and shots on goal (24) just days after returning from Greece, where he became the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. He opened the season by recording 1-1—2 in a
6-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Oct. 1. Ovechkin then scored twice, assisted on the game-tying goal and potted the clinching score in the shootout to help the Capitals rally from a three-goal deficit in a 5-4 victory over the Calgary Flames Oct. 3. He closed the week by tallying Washington’s lone goal, the 375th of his career, in a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars Oct. 5. The 28-year-old Moscow native and reigning Hart Memorial Trophy winner has played in 604 career NHL games, all with the Capitals, totaling 375-366—741.


Eller factored in on five of Montreal’s seven goals, tying for second in the League in goals (3) and points (5) as the Canadiens split their opening two games. He began the season by recording 2-1—3 in a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Oct. 1, becoming just the third Canadiens player since 2002-03 to register three or more points in the team’s season opener, and added the game-winning goal and an assist in a 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Oct. 5. The 24-year-old Rodovre, Denmark, native has played in 211 career NHL games, registering 36-46—82 and 165 penalty minutes.


Fleury posted a 2-0-0 record with a 0.50 goals-against average, .979 save percentage and one shutout as the Penguins opened the season with a pair of victories. He recorded 27 saves in a 3-0 triumph over the New Jersey Devils Oct. 3, marking the 24th shutout of his NHL career and second in a season-opening game. Fleury then made 20 stops in a 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres Oct. 5, extending his season-opening shutout streak to a franchise-record 115:06 before allowing a goal with 4:54 remaining in regulation. With the victories, the 28-year-old Sorel, Que., native moved into a tie for 45th place on the all-time NHL wins list (251) with Colorado Avalanche netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Pens shutouts deserve a shoutout

May, 9, 2013

This is the first time in 34 years that 2 different goalies had a shutout in a single series for the same team:

Shutout by 2 Different Goalies in Same Series
Stanley Cup Playoff History
First Goalie 2nd Goalie
2013 Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury Tomas Vokoun
1979 Islanders Chico Resch Billy Smith
1976 Bruins Gerry Cheevers Gilles Gilbert
1975 Flyers Bernie Parent Wayne Stephenson
1972 Bruins Gerry Cheevers Eddie Johnston
1965 Canadiens Charlie Hodge Gump Worsley

PITTSBURGH -- Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s hard not to imagine that the Pittsburgh Penguins' Dan Bylsma has just made his most important decision as a head coach.

A man who won a Stanley Cup after just a few months on the job in June 2009, a man who won a Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year two years later to establish himself as one of the top young coaches in the game, has decided he’s seen enough of franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and will turn to veteran Tomas Vokoun to keep his team’s Stanley Cup dreams alive.

Bylsma announced Wednesday afternoon that Vokoun, who has not played in an NHL playoff game since 2007, will start for the Penguins in Game 5 Thursday night.

"We brought Tomas Vokoun in to play big games for us and be a goaltender we can count on to go in and play big games," Bylsma said.

"He’s done that this year for us. He has been very good against the Islanders in the three games that he’s played against the Islanders," the coach added. "We’re getting a guy who’s real capable, a guy going in and being a great goalie for us."

As much as there is a shocking element to the goaltending switch, the bottom line is that Fleury gave Bylsma little choice.

Fleury appears to have reverted almost instantly to the Marc-Andre Fleury we saw bumbling through a first-round loss to Philadelphia a year ago. After shutting out a timid New York Islanders team in Game 1, Fleury has allowed 14 goals in the last three games, two of which have resulted in losses.

Not all the goals are Fleury’s fault, but enough are to suggest this is a goaltender in the middle of a significant crisis of confidence with his team now needing to win two out of three to avoid the embarrassment of being eliminated by an eighth seed for the second time in four years. (The Canadiens dispatched the Pens in the second round in 2010.)

Fleury played Kyle Okposo’s goal from behind the net in Game 4 Tuesday like a bag of hammers, a goal that came with 1:24 left in the second period and allowed the Isles to forge a 3-3 tie going into the third period.

Then, with the Pens pressing for a tying goal late in regulation, Fleury looked like a deer in the headlights, allowing rookie Casey Cizikas to slide in a bad-angle goal to give the Isles a 6-4 victory and knot the series at two wins apiece.

In Game 2, Fleury somehow allowed the carom of an Okposo shot to come off the end boards and end up in the Penguins’ net for what would be the winning goal.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick looks like a netminder who is more than a little surprised when he does make a stop. While his teammates insist just the opposite -- that they still believe in him -- a goalie whose confidence balloon has been popped infects his teammates with the same malady, just as if it were the Ebola virus let loose in the dressing room.

Bylsma declined to discuss how the conversation went when Bylsma told Fleury he would not start Game 5, the first time in 80 Penguin postseason games that No. 29 will not be between the pipes to start.

"Not a conversation I’m going to discuss with you. But I have talked to Marc," Bylsma said.

It’s not just Fleury, of course. The team’s defensive play has taken a step backward, but instead of covering those holes in the fabric, Fleury is tugging at the loose strings, further weakening the tapestry.

"We definitely haven’t played our best hockey," defenseman Paul Martin said.

This isn’t to suggest the Islanders aren’t full value for tying the series. They are. And they are full value because they have realized a weakness in the Penguins goal and are exploiting it, sometimes shooting wide and hoping to catch Fleury overcommitting with rebounds and caroms. Other times, they appear to be shooting at his feet, looking to take advantage of poor rebound control and a lack of positioning.

But the reality is, if the Pens had even average goaltending, they would have won Games 2 and 4.

Yes, Islander netminder Evgeni Nabokov has not provided Conn Smythe-worthy netminding either, boasting a 4.56 GAA and .846 save percentage in the series, but the Islanders are the eighth seed, not a team that was the pick of many observers to cakewalk through the Eastern Conference.

And so the dice have been rolled, and the Penguins will turn to Vokoun, setting up all form of interesting storylines moving forward.

What happens if the 36-year-old, who has played in only 11 postseason games in his career, cannot give the Pens a win in Game 5 Thursday night? Do they go back to Fleury, a man who once upon a time won 30 postseason games between 2008 and 2009, for a must-win Game 6?

What if Vokoun gives you a win in Game 5 but falters in Game 6, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7? Who starts that game?

It was no coincidence that general manager Ray Shero went after Vokoun when free agency began in July. He wasn’t looking for a guy so he could rest Fleury; he was looking for a guy for just this eventuality, someone who could provide quality starts regardless of the time of the season.

Shero said on the eve of the playoffs that the challenges facing Fleury were the same that faced everyone in that room: showing they could elevate their game, especially after last year’s embarrassing defeat to the Flyers.

Vokoun was a solid 13-4 during the shortened regular season, with a respectable .919 save percentage, and was a big part of the Pens’ impressive 15-game win streak and a stretch in the second half of the season where they won 22 of 24 games.

Now he appears to give the Penguins their best chance at salvaging a series that has proved to be wildly entertaining, not to mention far closer than anyone had a right to expect.

The players who spoke to the media Wednesday either were not aware of or would not comment specifically about the goaltending change. Neither Vokoun nor Fleury was made available.

Still, Jarome Iginla talked about the dynamic of this series being as tight as it is and how it might actually benefit the Penguins.

"I think you enjoy it," Iginla said. "We get ready for a bigger battle than we had last game. And I think you just keep the focus there and love that challenge. I know we have a lot of great competitors in there that feel good today, that feel good and are excited to play tomorrow and are looking forward to it."

However the goaltending drama unfolds over the coming days, it’s hard to imagine that this move does not start the clock on Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh.

This playoff year was his opportunity to prove he was mentally tough enough to regain his form of 2008-09. Thus far he has failed, and in that failing, he has lost the confidence of the management and coaching staff.

Can he get it back?

Fleury is under contract through the 2014-15 season at an annual cap hit of $5 million with a limited no-trade clause.

It’s amazing to think that we sat with Fleury just a few days ago on the eve of this series and chatted about his newborn daughter and his ability to let things go, to move on from poor performances. He talked about how he had taken some time to look at the mistakes of the Philadelphia series and tried to put that series behind him.

But what was it that Bob Dylan sang, "But all the while I was alone the past was close behind"?

As it turns out for Fleury, the distance between the past and the present isn’t so far at all. In fact, it appears the two are the same, which has forced Bylsma into a decision that has altered the foundation of this team.
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Islanders are not simply happy to be here.

Proving that they can be more than just competitive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders edged the top seed in the East 6-4 in a wild romp at Nassau Coliseum Tuesday night to even the series 2-2.

Scoring six goals against a supremely shaky Marc-Andre Fleury, the Isles might also have planted some serious doubt within the Penguins' room about their starting goaltender.

[+] EnlargeJosh Bailey
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsThe Islanders evened up the series at two games apiece on Tuesday.
Fleury has now given up 14 goals in four games this series, leading many to wonder whether veteran backup Tomas Vokoun will get the start in goal for Game 5 on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined to say who would start, but he didn’t rule out Vokoun as a possibility.

“We’re not going to talk about our starting goaltender for Game 5 right now,” Bylsma said.

It wasn’t just Fleury who gave up questionable goals -- Isles netminder Evgeni Nabokov has a few he’d probably like back as well -- in what turned out to be a wildly entertaining game between two teams trading scoring chances at a frenetic pace.

After seeing leads quickly evaporate in the first two periods, the Islanders rattled off three goals in the final frame. Captain Mark Streit, who finished with three points, tied the game at 3 with his second goal of the game early in the third, and superstar center John Tavares snapped a 4-4 draw to score what would hold up as the game-winner midway through the period.

Tavares stick handled his way to the doorstep and chased his own rebound to beat Fleury’s outstretched pad for a 5-4 lead at 10:11. Fourth-line sparkplug Casey Cizikas added an insurance goal with less than two minutes remaining -- the final display of Fleury’s frustrating night.

Before that bizarre play, in which he was out of position and slow to react to Cizikas cutting to the net, Fleury gave up a real softie to Kyle Okposo in the second period.

Okposo threw the puck at the net from behind the goal line and banked it in off Fleury’s pads at 18:36.

The handful of blunders was eerily reminiscent of last year’s meltdown in the first round of the playoffs, when Fleury surrendered a dizzying 26 goals over six games to the Philadelphia Flyers.

“We know how he played last year against Philly, but we just want to go get traffic in front of him, get shots, shoot the puck,” Okposo said. “We didn’t shoot the puck enough in the second. We came out in the third, peppered him and got in his kitchen a little bit.”

Rugged forward Matt Martin said the team let Fleury off too easy in Game 1 when he recorded a 5-0 shutout. Since then, they’ve amped up the pressure.

“Game 1, we didn’t test him enough. He had a shutout. Luckily, Game 2 we were able to get some on him and since then, we’ve been able to capitalize on our opportunities,” Martin said. "I think if you take away any goalie’s confidence, it’s hard to make saves.”

By contrast, the Islanders confidence seems to be soaring after Game 4’s victory, one that ensures they’ll get another game at home in front of a raucous Nassau Coliseum crowd.

"Game 3 was heartbreaking and we found a way to put it behind us, so the nice thing is that we get another game at home here," Martin said. "The crowd’s been fantastic for us."

Even without top-pair defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who was forced from the game with an upper-body injury in the second period, the Islanders seem encouraged by their chances from here on out.

They’ll take momentum into Game 5 and the knowledge that these Penguins are a beatable team.

Although an inexperienced squad, the Islanders have matured, both from earlier this season and maybe even earlier this series, into one capable of managing the momentum swings and surges within a game.

“We put so much effort into getting here, there was no doubt we wanted to make the most of this opportunity," Tavares said. "We weren’t just satisfied being here. We believe in this room, obviously. ... There are a lot of guys stepping up for us here and that’s what we need.”

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins showed up for work Wednesday morning wearing T-shirts with the No. 4 on the back, a nod to the immediate task of winning four games to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

No word on whether those same shirts will be worn Thursday with the "4" crossed out and replaced by a "3" after the Penguins whipped the New York Islanders 5-0 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

They’re just T-shirts, of course: some fabric and a little lettering, including the phrase, "Here We Go."

But the shirts speak to a mindset, a narrowing of the focus to the task at hand.

When you are a team as deep and talented as the Penguins -- and when there is as much discussion about a long playoff run, a possible trip to the Stanley Cup finals, another championship -- it might be easy to forget about first things first.

If you look at the big picture, if you look at what is needed to win a Cup, "It’s a bit overwhelming," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said after Wednesday’s game.

And if you start thinking about that, "you’ll never get there," he said.

"Everyone wanted to hand us the Cup last year, and we saw how that turned out," Adams added.

And there’s the rub.

In an interview before Wednesday’s game, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero went to great pains to reinforce that his team was very mindful of the Islanders, even though the Pens were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Isles the eighth seed.

"I know this team has a great deal of respect for the Islanders," Shero said. "There’s no way we’ll be underestimating them."

Those are the kinds of sentiments that are on display when you’re coming off a 2012 playoff season that really ended before it began with the Penguins blowing a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in Game 1 and quickly falling behind 3-0 in the series en route to a six-game loss. It was the second consecutive one-and-done playoff spring for the Penguins, and they have won just one playoff round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

So you can understand if there is an emphasis on the details this time around.

"We’ve been preaching that all year," Adams said. "I think we’ve been humbled."

After one game, it would appear the message has sunk in, as the Penguins methodically took apart an inexperienced Islanders team that is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007.

The Pens took advantage of an early power play to go up 1-0 after a terrific play by Beau Bennett, who cut in from the right side and roofed a shot over veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Bennett wouldn’t be in the lineup if it weren’t for the fact that doctors declined to let captain Sidney Crosby suit up for Game 1.

Talk about taking advantage of your opportunities: Bennett scored in his first-ever playoff game.

The Penguins would add another power-play goal early in the second period by Kris Letang before Pascal Dupuis, the king of even-strength goals, added two while the teams were playing five aside. Tanner Glass rounded out the scoring with his first-ever postseason goal.

Defensively, the Pens killed off four Islander power plays and limited the Isles to 26 shots, providing netminder Marc-Andre Fleury with ample protection. Fleury, who endured a nightmare series last postseason against the Flyers, earned his sixth postseason shutout.

"Everything went great tonight," Dupuis said. "Yes, we did play the right way, but you have to keep saying to yourself it’s only 1-0."

If there was cause for concern for the Penguins, it was the loss of James Neal, who got tangled up with Travis Hamonic early in the second period and did not return. There was no information on his status for Game 2 Friday.

Also, Jussi Jokinen, who added two assists and continues to be a point machine since coming over from Carolina at the trade deadline, went off the ice gingerly after a collision with Islanders forward Marty Reasoner, who was assessed a kneeing major with 2:10 left in the game.

The Islanders, meanwhile, looked like a team whose most important players (outside Nabokov) were playing in their first playoff game. Reasoner, playing in his 24th career postseason game, was the player with the most playoff experience among Islander skaters, and he’d been a healthy scratch for the final 10 regular-season games.

John Tavares, who figures to be among the finalists for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, was a nonfactor, finishing the night without a shot. Likewise, Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson weren’t the players who combined for 25 regular-season goals.

Head coach Jack Capuano said the team’s work ethic and determination weren’t what they had been during the final month of the regular season, when the Isles secured an unexpected playoff berth, and the execution was lacking.

Nabokov, a player Capuano referred to as an extension of the coaching staff given his experience, was given the hook just 1:51 into the second period after the Pens made it 4-0 with two goals in 32 seconds.

Although he was beaten twice by hard, high shots courtesy of Bennett and Letang on the power play, this loss wasn’t a function of poor goaltending. Instead, this was a loss that was, pure and simple, about one team being light years ahead of another in terms of getting the job done.

"Obviously, I think it was a little bit too easy for them, for the Penguins. All-around game has to be better. Better saves, more saves. I guess it’s got to start with me," Nabokov said.

"I’ve got to make key saves at the key times and give the guys a chance to battle. But the game was over basically at the beginning of the second period, it’s four-zip, and it’s really tough to come out of it against that type of team. So [I] have to find a way to tighten up and be better," he said.

Of course, as the Pens’ T-shirts remind us, this series is not the best of one.

The Islanders have a chance to regroup, and one imagines whatever nerves and butterflies might have invaded their bodies Wednesday will have dissipated by the time Game 2 rolls around Friday night.

"I don’t think anything is easy. You have to come out, and you have to work hard. It’s got to hurt to play; I heard somebody in the locker room actually say that: It’s got to hurt to play," Nabokov said.

"I think we have to come out next game, and we have to be ready, be more physical and just make it hard on them everywhere, every inch of the ice. We have to battle for every inch of the ice, everywhere. I think that’s the only way we can play with that team because, otherwise, they’re too skilled. They’re too good."

There is no doubt that the Chicago Blackhawks’ improbable points streak is the best thing hockey has going right now to grab the rest of the sporting world’s attention, but in terms of pure entertainment value, any matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers has to rank as a close second.

Let’s face it: When these clubs meet, all bets are off.

In what served as a throwback to the wild-and-crazy playoff series in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last spring, Thursday night’s battle for Pennsylvania bragging rights did not disappoint.

The Flyers came out like a buzz saw to claim a 4-1 lead after a physical, energetic first period, but their lead fizzled away as the Penguins charged back to score four unanswered goals and secure the 5-4 win in hostile territory.

The visiting team has won in all three meetings between the teams this season.

Chris Kunitz finished with two goals and an assist, Sidney Crosby chipped in with three helpers and backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun turned away all 14 shots he faced in relief of starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn’t make it past the first period after giving up four goals on 18 shots.

“You know, about these games,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told reporters. “You’re probably going to see something a little head-shaking at times.”

The Penguins are now within two points of the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a 7-3-0 record and three straight wins. Philadelphia fell to 11th place with the loss, three points back of the eighth-place Rangers.

Fueled by a pair of power-play goals by forward Jakub Voracek in the first, the Flyers came out flat in the second and did little to thwart the Penguins’ onslaught of offense. They registered only three shots on goal on Vokoun in the second period.

Ilya Bryzgalov was given the hook in that period, but Brian Boucher couldn’t preserve the tie as Kunitz’s second goal of the night held up as the game winner.

It wasn’t a good night for goalies, and the dud performance by Fleury was oddly reminiscent of last spring, too. No doubt the Penguins have some concerns about their No. 1 guy going the distance in the postseason.

Then again, these Penguins-Flyers games usually seem like outliers compared to the rest.

The teams have combined for a whopping 19 goals in the first three games this season; they amassed a jaw-dropping 45 goals in total during last year’s roller coaster six-game playoff series that saw Philadelphia advance to the second round.

Oh, and of course there was some nastiness involved. Although there was no rematch between captains Crosby and Claude Giroux, Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell and Pittsburgh’s James Neal scrapped in the first; both players received roughing minors, but Hartnell was slapped with an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The teams next meet in Pittsburgh on March 24. If the past two seasons have taught us anything, circle that date on the calendar.

-- The Blackhawks ran their record to an NHL-best 6-0 with a hard-fought 2-1 overtime win over Detroit on Sunday. Corey Crawford continues to prove that he’s forgotten about last spring’s playoff disappointment with a .933 save percentage and 1.78 GAA. The Hawks continue to get balanced scoring with goals from two defensemen, Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy, to pace them.

-- Meanwhile, Patrick Marleau did not score two goals for the first time this season -- you knew he wasn’t going to score 96 goals, right? -- but he did add his league-leading ninth goal and added an assist as the Sharks beat another Western Conference power in Vancouver by a 4-1 count. The Sharks are 5-0-0 and have outscored opponents by a whopping 23-8 for a league-best plus-15 goal differential.

-- The weekend brought with it respite for the NHL’s last winless team, the Washington Capitals, as they defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 on Sunday afternoon. The Caps, now 1-3-1, got their first win thanks in part to the first goal of the season by captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored the game winner early in the third period to give the Caps a 3-1 lead. The Sabres, meanwhile, have seen a strong 2-0 start to the season evaporate into a three-game losing streak that has seen them outscored 12-6. Thomas Vanek did not play Sunday because of an injury, although it’s not believed to be serious.

-- Wade Redden -- remember him? -- scored for the second straight game for the St. Louis Blues as they topped Minnesota in a topsy-turvy affair that ended with Vladimir Sobotka scoring in overtime for a 5-4 Blues victory. St. Louis is off to a 5-1-0 start while the revamped Wild continue to look for consistency as they blew a 3-1 lead in this one and are 2-2-1 on the season as a result.

-- The Pittsburgh Penguins ended a two-game losing streak by beating the Ottawa Senators in a shootout 2-1 on Sunday. The Penguins, now 3-2-0, got a nice piece of work from Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 31 of 32 shots and then the Pens scored on all three shootout attempts against Craig Anderson. The Sens remain a pleasant surprise, though, with a 3-1-1 record. They have given up just nine goals in five games.

-- The Montreal Canadiens won their third straight game Sunday and in the process knocked the New Jersey Devils from the ranks of the undefeated. The Habs scored on the power play in overtime -- Andrei Markov delivering the knockout blow with his fourth of the season, most among defensemen -- to defeat the Devils 4-3. New Jersey had allowed just three goals while going 3-0-0 to start the season.

-- After winning two in a row to arrest a season-opening three-game losing streak, the Philadelphia Flyers came back to earth Sunday, dropping a 5-1 decision to Tampa. The loss came on the road 24 hours after Philadelphia crushed Florida 7-1 but also highlighted a potential problem for the Flyers as backup Michael Leighton earned his first start of the season and gave up five goals on 26 shots. It was Leighton’s first NHL action since the 2011 playoffs. The Lightning, meanwhile, won their third in a row and own a 4-1 record and top spot in the Southeast Division, having scored 24 goals in five games. Teddy Purcell led the way for the Lightning with a goal and two assists.

-- The Jets and the Islanders didn’t disappoint as Winnipeg won a 5-4 barn-burner in overtime in a game that featured five third-period goals. The Jets are a surprising 3-1-1 as Evander Kane scored the winner to give Winnipeg a three-game winning streak. John Tavares had a goal and two assists for the Isles, who are 2-2-1.

-- Other notable moments from the weekend? How about Anaheim’s shootout victory over Nashville that saw Daniel Winnik score his fifth of this young season and 30-year-old Viktor Fasth earn his first-ever NHL win in his first-ever NHL start? The Ducks are 3-1. And the Los Angeles Kings got in the "W" column Saturday with a 4-2 victory over the slumping Phoenix Coyotes.
Penguins GM Ray Shero kicked off what should be another busy offseason around the NHL with an interesting trade and signing Monday, acquiring goalie Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals for a seventh-round pick in this month’s draft and then signing the UFA-to-be netminder to a $4 million, two-year deal.

But first, after getting permission from the Caps, he spoke with Vokoun for 40 minutes Sunday to ensure the veteran wanted to go to Pittsburgh.

"I wanted to find out his interest level in playing here," Shero told Monday. "He wants to go to a place where he has a chance to win. He’s 35 and will be 36. We talked about what we had here. He’s played against us a lot, he was comfortable with the setup here and confident he could help Marc and help our team. He said he was excited when he heard it was Pittsburgh."

Vokoun is a clear upgrade over backup Brent Johnson and, as a longtime starter in the NHL, will allow Marc-Andre Fleury not to be overtaxed next season. The feeling this season was that Fleury played too much and was tired come playoff time, when he was lit up by Philadelphia.

"We felt goaltending was a position we wanted to upgrade if we could," Shero said. "Marc played 69 games last season. The position has also changed and it’s much more physically demanding. The collisions at the crease, players at the net, you’re battling a lot as a goalie. Physically and mentally it takes its toll, I believe. So we talked about ways to help Marc-Andre Fleury. We like him as our goaltender but to be able to get a guy like Tomas makes sense for us."

The move won’t only keep Fleury fresh, Shero said, but also the hope is that Vokoun -- a longtime starter -- will push Fleury.

"And I know Tomas. I had him in Nashville," said Shero. "He’s a quality goaltender but also a good person. I don’t see any problems there with Marc-Andre."

Garrison talks

Contract talks between the Florida Panthers and UFA-to-be Jason Garrison will resume this week, at which point the defenseman can expect an offer from the team.

Garrison exploded for a career-high 16 goals this season while earning $700,000.

"We’re going to start the process this week, we’re going to talk and see where it goes," Panthers GM Dale Tallon told Monday. "I talked to his agent at the combine last week and said I hoped we could get together this week and see if we could get something done."

Jagr in Flyers' future?

Where will Jaromir Jagr be next season? Possibly in Philadelphia again, although that’s not guaranteed. The 40-year-old winger, who signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Flyers last summer, had a blast in Philly this season. He’s UFA July 1. His agent, Petr Svoboda, has been in touch with the Flyers.

"We’ve talked, I think there’s mutual interest there, so we’ll see," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told Monday.

Because of "tagging" space issues on the cap -- CBA lingo for having the maximum allowable under the cap for next season -- the Flyers wouldn’t be able to sign Jagr at the moment. They would have to wait until July 1, when the cap is expected to go up to around $70 million.

"But there’s interest from both sides," said Holmgren. "So we’ll see how it goes."

Weber in Predators' future?

Predators captain and Norris Trophy nominee Shea Weber becomes a restricted free agent July 1. At this point, there’s nothing going regarding a new contract.

"Nothing to report, no conversations, no talks yet," Weber’s agent, Kevin Epp told Monday.

No surprise there. The primary focus right now in Nashville is getting UFA-to-be Ryan Suter done as I wrote about last Friday.

Weber is on the back burner until that situation is resolved. Suter's agent, Neil Sheehy, via email Monday said there was nothing new on that front.

It’ll be interesting to see how Weber reacts depending on what Suter does. Would Weber want to sign long-term if Suter leaves? Can the Preds afford to keep Weber around another season if he doesn’t want to sign a long-term extension? I just don’t see how they can. If Weber doesn’t sign long-term, surely the Preds have to shop him this summer. Either Suter and Weber both sign extensions to stay in Nashville or they’re both gone this summer. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between, in my mind.

Rant answers: Flames need fuel

March, 27, 2012
Lots to rant again this week. Thank for your passion! Let’s take a look:

Johnzilla92: Rant: I understand that the NHL is trying to eliminate head shots from the game and that has been evident all year long. What I do not understand is why during the Blackhawks-Canucks game last week, only one player was given a suspension. Early in the game, Daniel Sedin took a cheap shot at Duncan Keith with an elbow to the head. Later, Keith returned the favor causing Sedin to leave the game. After watching Brendan Shanahan's explanation of why Keith received a suspension, I am confused to why Sedin wasn't given a suspension as well. His hit on Keith was just as illegal as Keith's. What do you think?

My take: The NHL did take a look at Sedin’s check on Keith but felt in the end that the principal point of contact was shoulder to shoulder before Keith’s head was eventually hit on the play. Hence, no supplemental discipline. And that was the right call.

DevilHockey35: When are Jay Feaster and Calgary ownership going to admit to themselves and, most importantly, to their fans that the team needs a major overhaul? Yes, this team can compete, but not for anything more than the eighth seed. Feaster needs to trade [Jarome] Iginla and Kipper [Miikka Kiprusoff] this summer to get some building blocks for the future. They have no real assets coming through the ranks to help this team. If it wasn't for Kipper year after year, Calgary would be a perennial lottery team. When is the rebuild going to begin?

My take: I agree with you that it’s long overdue for this team to re-tool, if not totally rebuild. Based on my conversations with Feaster this season, he was giving this group one last shot and, if they failed to deliver, changes were coming. The Flames have nine expiring player contracts (six UFAs, three RFAs) so that will help Feaster in making changes. But the real discussion has to be with captain Jarome Iginla, who has one more year on his deal at $7 million for next season. Does he really want to stick around for a re-tool? There’s something to be said for playing your entire career in one town. But there’s also something to be said for having a chance to win your first championship before you retire. If I’m Flames ownership, I have Feaster have a heart-to-heart with Iginla after the season and see where he’s at.

Schnaidt20: My rant actually has to do with the the league. I am tried of all the constant changes. I understand that we are trying to appeal to everyone else but this is gettting crazy. Besides a few issues such as equipment size, (shoulder and elbow pads) the point system and realignment, nothing needs to be changed. The game is faster than ever and incredibly exciting to watch. If you guys keep making changes some may not be able to even keep up and give up on it. No trapezoid, then a trapezoid, no two-line pass, now maybe a two-line pass, hybrid icing, no hand in own zone, etc., etc., etc. How about we just let these boys play some good ol' time hockey and stop trying to put red tape all over the place. There's too many rules!!!! You hit, you shoot and you skate. Nuff said!

My take: And that in fact was the consensus when you spoke to most of the GMs in Boca Raton, Fla., two weeks ago. The game is good, let’s not play around with it too much. That’s why hybrid icing was really the only rule recommendation for next season.

Middaughsome: Can we please go to a 3-2-1 point format, or get rid of the shootout all together. It would be a shame if a team like Washington misses the playoffs, even though they have the fourth highest ROW in the East, behind only Pittsburgh, Philly, New York and Boston (tied with 36). They should really be ahead of Florida and Ottawa; although New Jersey would still be ahead in a 3-2-1 format because of their ridiculous amount of shootout wins. This is not to say Washington doesn't have other issues, but it's pretty absurd that a skills competition win is worth the same as a regulation or overtime win. Last time I checked, hockey was a team sport.

My take: Um, I think a really good-looking journalist from Northern Ontario wrote about this March 2 on

agr114: When are sports writers, Burnside and LeBrun, going to put Fleury in Vezina contention. His stats are 40 wins, 2.24 goals-against average, .919 save percentage and a .769 save percentage in shootouts. Tops in the league in wins. I'm not saying he should win, I think he should be nominated though and deserves a little more attention. Obviously, Lundqvist is running away with this award.

My take: Marc-Andre Fleury is absolutely among my final five choices for the Vezina. He’s had a sensational second half of the season. Unfortunately, hockey writers don’t vote for the Vezina. That’s up to the NHL’s 30 GMs.

delpeg: The NHL needs to revisit the system in use for playoff seeding. The idea of rewarding division winners with home-ice advantage is understandable, but outdated. In a year when there are likely to be six teams (PIT, PHI, NAS, DET, CHI, & NJ) and a possible seventh (OTT) all having more points than teams seeded higher, the current system (and by extension the NHL) loses credibility. Where is the fairness for teams of the Atlantic and Central divisions? The NHL uses the argument that they want the regular season to matter when arguing against switching to a 3-2-1 point system for all games, and yet they completely ignore the results of the regular season in seeding the playoffs. Mediocre division winners should not be rewarded with a postseason advantage simply for surviving the season in a weaker division while stronger teams from stronger divisions are put at a disadvantage. If the regular season matters to the NHL as the prescribe, then fix the playoff seeding accordingly.

My take: The NHL did in fact revisit this issue -- when the 30 owners agreed on realignment in December. But the NHLPA didn’t sign on to it, so realignment is on hold until the 2013-14 season at the earliest. The league and players’ association will make this part of the upcoming CBA talks this summer.

sportz28106: When is the NHL gonna step up and actually hand out punishments so severe it will eliminate head shots? These five-game suspensions are not going to stop them any time soon (Bourque, Keith). The point of these punishments is to deter the others from doing the same. Sorry, but I don't think five games is enough for some of these hits.

My take: I agree. And I thought that’s where we were headed in preseason with the stiff suspensions handed out. To me, it’s not until you start going double-digits for head shots, like Keith’s on Sedin, that you’re going to affect greater change on player behavior in this area. Now, I will say that there are a lot of players in this league that have changed their ways since Rule 48 came into the league two years ago. Matt Cooke would be the poster boy in that sense -- players making better decisions when making body contact. Brendan Shanahan showed the assembled media in Boca Raton some examples of this during his presentation to us. But I still would like to have seen stiffer suspensions throughout the course of the season to deal with head shots.

zalger02: Pierre, why did the GMs not do away with the trapezoid? Ilya Bryzgalov made a fantastic outlet pass the other night against the Canadiens all the way to Jaromir Jagr on the blue line. Jagr passed it to Danny Briere as he whizzed by with speed and wham-bam they scored a goal, all because the goalie noticed the other team could be caught on a line change after a sloppy clearing attempt. He had to go out in front of the goal line to do it though. Remind me again why Bobby Clarke doesn't like goalies playing pucks?!

My take: Just not enough traction to gain the support needed in Boca Raton. But I will say it’s growing towards that end. It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next five years the trapezoid is gone.

dtowner1081: Get ready for the classic, "My team does not get enough love rant." The Blues have the most points in the NHL, and are one of the stories of the season. Yet every night when I check ESPN mobile, do I get a headline? No, I have to go to the scoreboard just to get to get the AP summary. We Blues fans have been loyally waiting for a year like this since the lockout, yet all I read about are teams in the inferior Eastern Conference. I know it is trite, but isn't it time to give the Blues some love?

My take: Well my friend, get ready for yours truly beginning his playoff travel in St. Louis for the first round of the playoffs. I look forward to it. The Blues deserve our attention.

ericsando: Is there any chance the NHL will start enforcing the rules? There are a dozen uncalled interference penalties per game as defensemen ride forechecking forwards into the boards. They call slashing only when a composite stick cracks but let players hack the legs of other players all game. It's getting crazy as some games go by with one or two power plays. I can only imagine what will happen when the playoffs start this year. Last year's finals were a disgrace as the refs had NO control over the games and the series devolved into the Bruins bullying their way to the Cup. In the post lockout NHL, talent is supposed to be king.

My take: More than a few GMs I spoke with in Boca Raton two weeks ago privately complained about this. There are some GMs who believe the standard has slipped a little. On the flip side, another GM told me this is where it should have ended up all along. All the penalties being called in the first two years after the lockout slowed down the flow of the game. After all, he said, this is still better than the pre-lockout, obstruction-filled hockey. While I agree with that, I think this issue will rear its ugly head if a team feels it lost out in the playoffs because of it. Stay tuned.
Today the guys go at Toronto and the Olympics. Go!

CUSTANCE: Hey, Pierre. So if we thought the news would slow down once the trade deadline passed, we were sorely mistaken. Just in the last week, there's been a coaching change in Toronto. A serious goaltending injury and interesting possible replacement in Boston and a five-year contract extension for Mikhail Grabovski. (He's from Ontario, right?) But I wanted to start with a little Olympic talk before we dive into the other news. Steve Yzerman was announced as the GM of Team Canada on Monday and I'd be stunned if anybody other than Brian Burke is named as the American GM when USA Hockey eventually makes their announcement after the CBA is finalized. Burke would no doubt accept the offer. "I will always assist USA Hockey in whatever capacity they request," he wrote in an email this morning. To me, the interesting debate centers around the U.S. head coach, a debate I wrote about this morning on the Insider blog. Ron Wilson is loaded with international experience and led Team USA to the silver medal in Vancouver. He's also no longer coaching in the NHL. I might be more inclined to change directions and go with Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma if I were in charge of USA Hockey. What about you? And any chance anybody other than Mike Babcock coaches Team Canada?

LEBRUN: Babcock would be my choice, just like Yzerman, because why fix something that isn’t broken? He’s one of the best coaches in the league and showed incredible resolve in Vancouver when the team struggled early on, making the tough decision to bench Martin Brodeur. That’s the guy I want back behind the Olympic bench. What I’m hearing, though, is that Team Canada wants to wait until the NHL and NHL Players’ Association agree on a new collective bargaining agreement before announcing its Olympic coach. The U.S. coaching situation is interesting. Bylsma has to be considered, but I don’t think you can overlook John Tortorella, either. Tortorella was in Vancouver as Wilson’s assistant, so he’s got that valuable experience to draw on. My guess is that some combination of Bylsma and Tortorella would make the most sense for the U.S. And what about on the ice? Both Team USA and Team Canada will have fresh faces in Sochi, if indeed the NHL decided to send its players again.

CUSTANCE: The Americans sent a pretty young team to Vancouver, so we should be able to pencil in many of those players for Sochi. But you're right; there's some emerging young talent that will push for spots on both teams. Panthers GM Dale Tallon has been working with USA Hockey for the last year as part of its advisory group, one that will be meeting in Boca Raton the Sunday before the GM meetings. The young American talent is something that has stood out to him over the course of the last year. "I think it's terrific," he said when we chatted Monday. "There's a lot of great young players coming forward. Good young defensemen, a good nucleus of veteran players. It's an exciting group." I'm fascinated by the Team USA goaltending situation. Since the last Olympics, Tim Thomas has emerged as the best American goalie but he'll be 39 in 2014. Ryan Miller has been great lately for Buffalo but inconsistent since leading Team USA to the silver medal in Vancouver. Jonathan Quick certainly is in the mix, and my sleeper choice is Cory Schneider, who should be starting somewhere in the NHL by 2014. Is it too much to ask for a Schneider-versus-Roberto Luongo gold-medal game?

LEBRUN: I can’t believe you’re based in Detroit and you didn’t mention Jimmy Howard as a potential Olympic goalie for Team USA? C’mon, man! If we had to choose the teams today, I’d go Miller-Quick-Howard for Team USA, and I’d be bold enough to say the Americans would have an edge over Canada in goal. Of course, Miller was tournament MVP in Vancouver and it still wasn’t good enough to win gold. What will Canada do in net? I’m not sure Luongo returns. To me it comes down to Marc-Andre Fleury, Carey Price and Cam Ward as the three netminders in Sochi. Because the tournament is still two years away, it will be interesting to see Price’s continued development as a high-end starter in this league and whether he’ll be the main man in Sochi, or if Fleury can hold him off. Up front, Yzerman will have a bunch of new faces to look at, including the likes of Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, John Tavares and Jamie Benn -- none of whom were in Vancouver two years ago. Tough choices ahead for Yzerman.

CUSTANCE: Sorry, Jimmy. You're right, Pierre; Howard should have been in there. But let's talk about some games that aren't two years away. Huge one in your neck of the woods tonight with Boston traveling to Toronto to take on the rejuvenated Maple Leafs. I hope the Leafs still have their legs after a couple of long practices under Randy Carlyle. While other coaches around the league are being careful to monitor practice time during the grueling stretch run, Toronto is in full training mode right now. The Bruins have absolutely crushed Toronto this season, outscoring the Maple Leafs 23-6 in four wins, but this is a different Bruins team that is reeling a bit. Toronto seems to have all the positive momentum heading into this showdown. It has the energy that comes with a new coach, and center Mikhail Grabovski has a new five-year deal with a healthy but not unreasonable $5.5 million annual cap hit. Does the momentum continue tonight?

LEBRUN: The Leafs are in survival mode, five points out of a playoff spot, and the Bruins are an ornery bunch looking for consistency. It should make for a playoff-type atmosphere tonight at Air Canada Centre between the two Orginal Six rivals. You mentioned the Leafs signing Grabovski. That’s a lot of money for a No. 2 center, especially when you consider the $6.1 million cap hit the Sedin twins carry in Vancouver. Then again, we all know the Sedins gave Vancouver a huge hometown discount. That wasn’t the case here with Grabovski, who had all the leverage on Toronto as a potential UFA on July 1, in large part because of how incredibly thin the UFA market is for centers this summer. The Leafs had few other options but to bring him back. But I’m not sure they’ll like that contract in a few years.

Cheers, Craig.

Fleury joining elite company

March, 5, 2012
Marc-ed Man: Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury is one win from his fourth straight season with 35 or more wins. From Elias: Only three goaltenders in NHL history have recorded at least 35 wins in four or more straight seasons. Martin Brodeur did it 11 straight seasons (1996-2008). Miikka Kiprusoff had 35 or more in each of the past six seasons (28 so far this season) and Henrik Lundqvist did so in each of the past five seasons (31 so far this season).
There are lots of interesting names to kick around when it comes to handicapping the Vezina Trophy race as we hit the end of the calendar year -- some familiar, some not. Here’s a look at our top five plus some honorable mentions.

1. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

A couple of things stand out for us when it comes to the likable Detroit netminder. First, he leads the NHL in the one stat that trumps all others: wins. But beyond his 20 victories, Howard has been one of the busiest goalies in the league, ranking third in minutes played and 10th in shots against. In short, Howard has been a rock for the Wings, especially when they were struggling to find their offensive game, holding the fort with a 1.91 GAA fifth-best in the league.

“He’s been our best player for sure,” Detroit head coach Mike Babcock told during the Wings’ pre-Christmas western road trip.

The Wings, 12-3-0 in their past 15 games, are three points back of Chicago for the Central Division and Western Conference leads, and the rapidly maturing Howard is a big part of the team’s success.

“We’re playing him a lot. We’re riding him, but he’s young,” said Babcock, joking that Howard, 27, has plenty of time to rest later.

2. Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

What do you say about the defending Vezina and Conn Smythe winner other than that he hasn’t missed a beat? Thomas has 13 wins in his past 15 appearances and ranks second in save percentage and third in GAA. He also is tied for first with four shutouts. The Bruins, meanwhile, look like a team on a repeat mission sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind Chicago for the NHL lead. Thomas and cohort Tuukka Rask have the Bruins atop the league in goals against per game.

3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The 29-year-old Vezina Trophy runner-up from a year ago continues to earn every cent of his new seven-year contract. He is riding a personal five-game win streak while leading the NHL in saves, appearances and shots against. Rinne appears to have shaken off a rough patch that he and the Predators endured in mid-to-late November and has the Predators back in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. He was named one of the NHL’s stars of the week with a 3-0-0 record and .957 save percentage last week. With all due respect to Norris Trophy hopeful and Preds captain Shea Weber, as Rinne goes, so go the Nashville Predators.

4. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

There are a couple of reasons the New York Rangers remain very much in the hunt for the Atlantic Division crown and the top spot in the Eastern Conference despite injuries that have decimated their blue line. There’s Marian Gaborik, who’s enjoying a bounce-back season with 19 goals, one off the league lead. And there’s The King, netminder Henrik Lundqvist. The young blue line has been rocked by a series of injuries to key members, including Marc Staal, who has yet to play a game this season. Meanwhile, Lundqvist has displayed his veteran leadership in keeping the Rangers more than just afloat. He has a .934 save percentage that ranks fourth in the NHL. Overall, the Rangers are third in the league in goals allowed per game and fifth on the penalty kill. Those are impressive stats that begin and often end with Lundqvist.

5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

In much the same way that Lundqvist has risen to the occasion for the Rangers, Fleury has quietly helped keep the Penguins in the mix at the top of the Eastern Conference despite being rocked by injuries to top players, including captain Sidney Crosby, Norris Trophy hopeful defenseman Kris Letang and at various times Paul Martin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Evgeni Malkin. Fleury had a stretch during which he allowed three or more goals in eight of nine games, but his 17 wins are second in the NHL. He has very much been a stabilizing influence on a team that continues to put up points in spite of a roster lacking many key pieces. He also had a stellar performance in a victory over top-seeded Chicago on Tuesday night.

Honorable mentions: Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues, Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild, Jose Theodore, Florida Panthers, Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks, Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils.