Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)
Love it or hate it, the overtime shootout has become an integral part of the modern NHL game. So much so that teams will carry a player on their roster who, aside from his shootout prowess, is a borderline NHL player.
Below are the top five shootout performers in the Atlantic Division.
Frans Nielsen, C, New York Islanders – No player has been more efficient in shootouts in his career than Frans Nielsen. In fact, no player in the NHL even comes close to Nielsen’s 58.3 shootout success rate. Nielson has 21 shootout goals in his career and five this season in nine opportunities. Since breaking into the NHL in 2008-09, he has led the Islanders every season in shootout goals, always finishing between a 55 and 60 percent clip, well above the league average and among the company of many elite NHL forwards. How does Nielsen do it? He has fantastic hands and great skills with the puck. But mostly, he has a deceptive back-hand move, a trick where he swoops in from one side of the ice or the other at a low speed, gets the goaltender to go down, then goes top-shelf. He did it when he first broke in three seasons ago and he continues to, as it has remained quite effective.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pittsburgh Penguins – Fleury is definitely a beneficiary of Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma’s attention to the shootout. After every practice the goaltender sees every shooter one-on-one. While it may be fun for the skaters, it has allowed Fleury to develop into one of the best shootout goaltenders in the league. His 36-17 shootout record is hard to match but Fleury does it with both style and panache. He will come out to openly challenge shooters, aggressively poke-check, and even occasionally do minor calisthenics. In 2011-12, he has a league-leading nine shootout wins and two losses.
Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers – If there is one goalie who has been arguably as good, if not at times better, than Fleury in shootouts, it is Henrik Lundqvist. Tied for first in the league for career shootout wins with 40, Lundqvist also plays with a flair for the dramatic. He will typically play aggressively to the shooter, perhaps flash his five hole to force them to make the first move. But he also can flop around in the crease with the best of them. Lundqvist has not been as successful in the shootout competition in 2011-12, going 3-3 in shootouts. Based off Lundqvist’s extensive shootout history, however, things should eventually work themselves out.
Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins – Not every player masters the art of the shootout immediately. Evgeni Malkin is evidence of that. In his second season, he was a contender for the Art Ross Trophy for much of the season but went a painful zero-for-five in the shootout. The following season, the season in which Malkin won the Art Ross, wasn’t much better as he managed only two goals in seven games. It got to a point where he wasn’t even deployed in the shootout, seeing only two opportunities in 2009-10. But that is in the past, as Malkin has been one of the most prolific players in the shootout this season, going eight for 11 and demonstrating that he can do so with exceptional panache, trying as many as three or four moves in order to try and beat the goaltender.
Ilya Kovalchuk, RW/LW, New Jersey Devils – Speaking of flair and panache, Ilya Kovalchuk has quickly transformed into one of the best shootout performers in the NHL. Part of his success might have to do with being on a winning team, but one of the most prolific goal-scorers since the shootout was instituted in 2005-06 was dreadful at that facet of the game for much of his career. Like Malkin, that has all changed this season, so much so that Kovalchuk has accumulated almost half of his career shootout goal total (20) this season with his league-leading nine shootout markers. He has an 81.8 percent conversion rating, sinking nine of his 11 opportunities.
Atlantic Division Notebook
New Jersey Devils – Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk remains stuck on 399 career goals. Look for him to change that tonight when the Devils visit the Colorado Avalanche.
New York Islanders – The Islanders will host the Flyers tonight in hopes of breaking a four-game losing streak.
New York Rangers – All eyes will be on Madison Square Garden tonight as the Rangers host the Pittsburgh Penguins in what will not only be an important division matchup, but will also feature the return of Sidney Crosby, who has been out with concussion symptoms for several months.
Philadelphia Flyers – Claude Giroux trails only Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in points. He will face off against the Islanders tonight, a team that Giroux has historically had some success against.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will be in net tonight when the Penguins visit the Rangers. He is 2-2 against the Blueshirts this season, managing a 2.02 goals against average and one shutout.