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Fleury no longer liability against Lundqvist

Rangers star has track record in playoffs but Penguins goalie may have advantage in matchup

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Goaltending plays an integral part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so is breaking down the battle between the pipes in each series this season, charting goals to find strengths, weaknesses and targetable tendencies.

Henrik Lundqvist has become a gold standard for goaltending over his 11 NHL seasons and is often the biggest reason the New York Rangers always seem to have a chance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But assuming Marc-Andre Fleury has recovered from the concussion that forced him to miss all of the Pittsburgh Penguins' regular-season games in April, it's fair to argue the Penguins might have the goaltending advantage in the Eastern Conference First Round despite being eliminated by Lundqvist and the Rangers the past two postseasons.

That's a risky statement given how good and how incredibly competitive Lundqvist is, but at the very least it's clear Fleury is no longer the liability that had many suggesting the Penguins look elsewhere for goaltending after his past playoff disappointments.

POSITIONING: Fleury is a completely different goaltender since the last of four-straight playoff defeats in 2013. In the three seasons since, he has established more consistent and conservative positional anchors under new goaltending coach Mike Bales Overaggressive during those playoff struggles, a problem exacerbated by a tendency to chase the play rather than positioning even more when he didn't feel confident, Fleury now plays a more controlled, contained style within the edges of his crease, wandering just beyond those confines only on rush chances, and using his incredible foot speed to beat passes.

Lundqvist made headlines early this season for deviating somewhat from the deeper positioning that has defined his impressive career, but never really went away from the "inside-out" approach that was always a more accurate description of his style. Though he was the NHL's best goalie through early December, there have been plenty of ups and downs since and by the end of the season Lundqvist was back to spending most of his time near his goal line, attacking with more depth on specific plays and reads.

Advantage: Because it's finally under control and more neutral than Lundqvist, Fleury

Video: NSH@PIT: Fleury denies Neal's shot with pad save

BLOCK/REACT THRESHOLD: Lundqvist stays patient and up on his skates longer than any other goalie in the League, using that deeper positioning to beat lateral plays with quick, short movements on his feet, and giving him more time to read shots and deflections to make reactive saves in tight.

Fleury has become better at reacting into shots. He's adjusted to more conservative positioning that makes it more important not to default to a blocking style that used to creep into his game when he struggled and sometimes just tried to get as close to the shooter as he could. But that "drop and block" tendency still shows up at times, and like almost every goalie, more often than Lundqvist.

Advantage: Because there's probably no other goalie like him in this regard, Lundqvist

Video: NYI@NYR: Lundqvist denies Tavares, Boychuk

PUCKHANDLING: Neither is a prolific puck handler and there is a sense less might be more for Fleury after getting caught trying to do too much with dump-ins at points earlier in his career. But like Lundqvist he is capable of setting up pucks or making short passes behind his net to help out his defense.

Advantage: None

POST PLAY: If there's one change Bales made to Fleury's game that was as important as positioning, it was getting him more comfortable moving into and off of his posts. Fleury added reverse-VH technique to his post-integration options, dropping his short-side pad to the ice and using his back skate as an anchor to push into the post and pivot around it, and now moves fluidly and powerfully in and out of it.
Lundqvist will also drop to his knees to go post-to-post on plays coming out from behind the net, but is still more of a post-lean and paddle down than it is a pure reverse-VH, and there are times it leaves him without a great short-side seal. He no longer relies as much on traditional VH, with the short-side pad up against the post and the back pad down on the ice, for sharp angle attacks from above the goal line, using more of a traditional butterfly with an overlap of the short-side skate outside the post, but post integration still isn't something that would be ranked high on Lundvist's lists of strengths.

Advantage: Because he actually uses them to his advantage now, Fleury

Video: PIT@NYR: Fleury denies E. Staal's point-blank chance

SCORING TRENDS: As noted, Fleury does not seem to default to his knees and lock his arms at his sides as much now as he did in the past, which is important since his deeper positioning would leave the top corners even more exposed without his more patient, reactive approach. But like a lot of goalies, Fleury is still more exposed on shots to the perimeter of the net. He still tends to kick rebounds out with his pads more than steer them into neutral areas with his stick. Though he does have the recovery speed to get to those second shots, he gets flat at times with those pushes rather than rotating into them. It's more prevalent to the blocker side and limits his ability to build vertical coverage above the pads.

Despite an up-and-down season, Lundqvist might be more prominent in the Vezina Trophy discussion if not for an .840 shorthanded save percentage that ranked 27th out of the 29 goalies to play at least 40 games. The Rangers penalty kill was guilty of giving up too many clean passes through the seams. Though Lundqvist gets there and gets square as fast as any goalie in the NHL, shooters have been getting too much time to either pick a spot and expose the deeper positioning that allows him to do so or wait him out with a lateral move, something that has gotten him stretched out and reaching in the past.

Advantage: Because extremes tend to be more exploitable, Fleury

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