Penguins' Fleury and Senators' Leclaire reverse momentum
April 23, 2010 4:00 AM
Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin works in front of Senators goaltender Pascal Leclaire during Thursday's game at Mellon Arena.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Standing 180 feet from each other, they were in wildly different circumstances for two people charged with doing exactly the same thing. They were there to stop the puck, Marc-Andre Fleury and Pascal Leclaire, and stop it they did.
Eighty-two times through four periods of playoff hockey, one more spectacular than the other, then vice versa, then verse visa.
At its apex, the hottest Game 5 temperatures had to withstood by Fleury, and for that he was the better equipped, having withstood Stanley Cup forging temperatures only last June. So in last night's first overtime period, the Ottawa Senators, left for dead as they vacated Canada late Tuesday night, fired 11 shots at the Penguins' net. In one dazzling sequence, Fleury stopped Jason Spezza's power-play wrister and Chris Kelly's attempt to knock in the rebound.
But the best opportunity on that overtime likely came from Craig Adams short-handed, and Leclaire stopped that puck for his 45th save.
And on it went, into the night.
For a guy who just had been informed he was to be the projectile in the hockey equivalent of being thrown in front of a subway train, Leclaire sounded like he couldn't wait to get to the platform.
"I've felt good all week at practice," Ottawa's Plan B under goaltenders said at Thursday's morning skate. "I felt good this morning. I feel confident. I feel relaxed. I'm excited and it should be fun."
In the cartoon balloons over the media's heads, you could almost read, "Right. Sounds like Pens 6, Sens 0."
The reverse momentum just happened to the guy in the other goal cage.
Fleury was coming off a Game 4 performance that was far from his best, albeit a 7-4 victory that pushed Ottawa to the brink. Fleury was more than likely to put on one of his typical recovery performances, in which he plays splendidly after being conspicuously undistinguished.
As we've come to understand, however, the NHL postseason rarely maintains any linear momentum, and when Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals left the uptown station last night, the quick goals went to the net behind Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh's Plan A.
The first one pinballed off Mike Fisher's stick and Sergei Gonchar's skate after its launch from the back of Erik Karlsson, and a second went across the same red line just 68 seconds later, this courtesy of Jarkko Ruutu, somehow standing comfortable in the goal crease.
At that moment, you wondered how funny it would be if the Penguins and Pirates both lost 20-0 on the same day.
OK, that was just me.
When Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson nearly tucked a rebound past Fleury just 69 seconds after that, the Penguins began to calculate the logistical and atmospheric implications of an Ontario weekend, because no breaks appeared to be going their way. When Senators' centerman Jess Winchester (which I believe was the name of Ben Cartwright's neighbor on Bonanza) nearly chopped Sergei Gonchar's hand off with a slash that drew no whistle, the notion that it wasn't Pittsburgh's night had legs.
Fortunately, the Senators weren't nearly done taking dumb penalties, and Chris Phillips went off for cross-checking, allowing Kris Letang to slice the lead in half just as the first period expired.
When Leclaire withstood 19 Penguin shots in the second period and allowed only Chris Kunitz's disputed rebound, it appeared no one might solve him again. It was an especially impressive performance by a goalie wearing vertically striped pads that made him look like something Prince might have worn to one of Meatloaf's pool parties.
It was though only a regularly scheduled Sidney Crosby miracle that could finally put the Penguins ahead, and that's something like what occurred at 9:01 of the third. Crosby, the leading scorer in these playoffs, had just been pushed into the halfboards by Zach Smith as Evgeni Malkin flew in on Leclaire; the 71 train was arriving on time. Crosby bounced off the wall, slid through the right circle and swatted home Malkin's rebound to put the Penguins up, 3-2.
That would have put a nice bow on the first-round package, but Peter Regin ripped a slap shot that made it 3-3 before the Penguins could even calculate the off days between here and Round 2.