To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine not just which goalie -- the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury -- is better, but just how far apart they truly are in comparison with each other.
One won a Vezina Trophy two seasons ago and was a finalist last season. The other has been a Stanley Cup Playoff washout the past two seasons.
Entering 2013-14, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers was viewed as arguably the best at his position in the League, while the Pittsburgh Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury was seen as having a tenuous-at-best hold on his job.
But as the Rangers and Penguins prepare to meet at Madison Square Garden in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2), have the roles become reversed?
Lundqvist has struggled this season for a number of reasons. There was the shrinkage of his goalie pads, a lingering lower-body injury that sidelined him for two games last month and the giant philosophical change from John Tortorella's shot-blocking defensive approach to new coach Alain Vigneault's more open, offensive-oriented style.
Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Fleury appears to have put all the talk about his postseason struggles far behind him. The Penguins always will be headlined by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but someone has to stop the puck and this season few have been better than Fleury. And he's had to do more work this season as Tomas Vokoun, who replaced him last spring and was expected to play a significant role this season, is out indefinitely after blood clots were found around his pelvis.
While it's expected that at some point Lundqvist will return to his lofty place among his peers, how far off is Fleury? Can this run of regular-season success earn him recognition among the top echelon of NHL goalies?
Let's break it down and reach a conclusion:
Why is Henrik Lundqvist regarded as one of the best in the business? His consistently excellent performance in his first eight seasons with the Rangers has earned him that lofty praise. He won at least 30 games in each of his first seven seasons, and his 24 wins last season tied for the League lead. He's also been a workhorse, playing at least 62 games in six straight seasons, including four seasons with at least 70 games.
"Hank has been all-world basically since he came into the League," NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes told NHL.com. "He hasn't really had a lot of extended stretches where he didn't play well. This season at the beginning of the year he didn't play well [but] you've got to look at the overall body of work."
Lundqvist's best season came in 2011-12 when he won 39 games, and finished in the top four in the League in goals-against average (1.96), save percentage (.930) and shutouts (eight). That earned him the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender. He also has been strong in the playoffs with a 2.28 career GAA and helping the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Final in 2012.
This season, though, has not been kind to Lundqvist. With Tortorella's departure and a commitment to a more offensive style under Vigneault, Lundqvist is seeing more high-quality scoring chances per game than he's used to. He lost some height on his goalie pads, which necessitated some adjustments to his coverage points. And he also played through a lower-body injury that he said he sustained Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings.
After leading the League in wins last season, Lundqvist enters Wednesday with four wins in 11 games. His 2.56 goals-against average is 18th in the League and his .914 save percentage ranks 20th.
While it's odd to see Lundqvist's chief statistical markers so far off -- he has a career GAA of 2.26 and save percentage of .920 -- there are signs he's starting to rediscover his old form.
Since missing two games with that lower-body injury, Lundqvist is 2-2-0, but has allowed five goals in those four games. Included in his strong play was a 29-save shutout on Halloween against the Buffalo Sabres.
"Hank has done a good job getting himself back on track," Weekes said. "He had some adjustments to make with the new equipment. If it's a game of inches, now he is playing with fewer inches. It increases your margin of error. I think that had a big impact on Hank and just executing saves, playing with less surface area. I can see how that took a while to get used to."
Regular-season numbers haven't been an issue for Marc-Andre Fleury the past few seasons. He averaged 37.5 wins per season from 2008-2012, and went 23-8-1 in 33 games last season.
It's the postseason, however, that has skewed the view some people have of Fleury.
"The playoffs are the question mark he's had the past four years," Penguins general manager Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review during the summer. "I think it's probably something on his mind."
Fleury has won one playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, and the last two postseasons have been the worst. He was bombarded for 26 goals in six games in the first round of the 2012 playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, and after allowing 14 goals in Games 2, 3 and 4 of the first round against the New York Islanders, he was replaced by Vokoun. Fleury played one more game, in relief against the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final, but allowed a goal on the first shot he faced. It was the last action he saw until the 2013 preseason.
When you add it up, Fleury is 4-6 with a 4.11 GAA and .858 save percentage in the playoffs the past two seasons.
Offseason talk ranged from Fleury being traded, to being a candidate for a compliance buyout or being made the backup. Instead, the Penguins stuck with him. In agreement with the Penguins, Fleury tweaked his offseason approach, including spending time with a sports psychologist.
"Goalie is a delicate position, no different than a golfer or a tennis player," Shero said during the summer. "You're on your own a lot. I think it's a good step for him. … It's kind of like the situation with Matt Cooke in that you can't just hope you're going to come back and things are going to be different. A lot of guys talk to somebody. It's a confidence thing."
Whatever Fleury did has worked wonders. He was the first goalie in the League to reach 10 wins, and he has a 1.83 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He's allowed more than two goals three times in 12 games.
"Marc-Andre Fleury is a unique goalie because he is so gifted," Weekes said. "He's good technically and is so athletic. I find when he's at his best he's right in the middle between the two, he isn't over-athletic and isn't relying too much on his technical game. He finds that sweet spot in the middle. That is what he looks like right now. And his headspace is where it needs to be right now. That's a big part of it."
Verdict: Despite the slow start, there's little question Lundqvist remains regarded as one of the best at his position in the world. But how big is the gap between him and Fleury? Not as large as you might think.
Though Lundqvist has the Vezina Trophy, Fleury has won a Stanley Cup and has guided the Penguins to the Cup Final twice.
Lundqvist has 172 wins in the previous five seasons; Fleury has 173. Lundqvist's goals-against average (2.24) and save percentage (.923) are better than Fleury's (2.49, .913) but it's not a gaping chasm separating them.
And though much has been made of Fleury's playoff shortcomings, Lundqvist has a career playoff record of 30-37 and he's gotten the Rangers past the conference semifinals once in seven tries.
Fleury's strong start also brings him deeper into the discussion of the top goalies in the League. He's played 12 of the Penguins' 15 games due to Vokoun's absence and has responded better than imagined to the increased workload. Fleury's play is a major reason why the Penguins have the most points in the Eastern Conference.
"When you talk about Fleury it's easy to say he struggled in the last two playoffs," Weekes said. "He did. He didn't play very well in the last two playoffs and he knows that. On the other side of the coin you're talking about a guy who has won a Stanley Cup and has carried a team to a Stanley Cup Final. He didn't forget how to play goal overnight. You've got to have to balance it out a little bit."
So where does Fleury rank among the top goalies in the League? Well, he might not be on Lundqvist's lofty perch, but he's not all that far behind.