Cook: Fleury's mental strength shines

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Marc-Andre Fleury is a true pro, not just a winner but a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. He is as tough-minded as they come despite going through life with a smile on his face, seemingly without a care in the world. He's strong enough to shrug off bad goals, bad games and even the occasional bad decision by his coach. Fleury proved that again Monday night. He played a huge part in a 4-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning two nights after being disrespected in a big way by coach Dan Bylsma.

Like other NHL players, Fleury likes playing in his hometown. That's why it was so baffling and inexcusable that Bylsma didn't play him Saturday night in Montreal. Fleury refused to complain publicly about the decision to start backup Tomas Vokoun in the Penguins' 7-6 win. "I always like to play in front of my friends and family, but it wasn't such a big deal," he said. But don't be fooled. Just because Fleury is a good team man doesn't mean he's happy about sitting in Montreal.

Bylsma said it was the plan all along to start Vokoun against the Canadiens. If that's the case, the plan was flawed. Bylsma said he didn't want Fleury to play five games in a row. That's nonsense. Fleury has been playing exceptionally well and wouldn't have been overly taxed by playing in Montreal. He could have sat for Vokoun Monday night if he needed rest.

This is the second time this season Bylsma has made a curious call with Fleury. He didn't start him in a home game Feb. 20 against the Philadelphia Flyers because it would have been Fleury's fourth consecutive start. The Penguins couldn't overcome the six pucks that Vokoun fished out of his net that night, losing, 6-5. Fleury started the next game against the Florida Panthers in a 3-1 win. Am I missing something? Wouldn't it have been better to play Fleury against the Flyers and sit him against the Panthers?

As bad as it was for Fleury to be benched against the hated Flyers, it had to be much worse for him not to play in Montreal. It brought back memories of former Penguins coach Mike Therrien making defenseman Brooks Orpik a healthy scratch in three consecutive games in December 2007, including one in Boston, where Orpik played his college hockey. "Brooksie, at that point, wasn't playing his best hockey. Why should I punish other guys who are playing well?" Therrien asked later, pointing out that Orpik was from Buffalo, not Boston. "I make exceptions for family, not for friends. If that game had been in Buffalo, he would have played."

Orpik got past the slight and played a big part in the Penguins getting to the Stanley Cup final that season. But it hardly helped his relationship with Therrien. Orpik's teammates also noticed. It might not have been the biggest reason they grew tired of Therrien's tough-love approach and quit on him in February 2009, leading to his firing. But it was a factor.

I'm not suggesting that will happen with Bylsma. I'm just saying the Fleury benching wasn't his finest moment as Penguins coach.

It's one thing not to want to overwork Fleury, although it's debatable what part fatigue played in his poor playoff series against the Flyers last season. Bylsma appears convinced it was a big factor, but it's just as reasonable to think Fleury just had a poor series. So did his teammates in front of him.

Still, there are times when common sense has to prevail.

Egos are a part of hockey. Managing egos are a big part of coaching. When the Penguins' power play struggles, people suggest splitting stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and putting them on separate units. But it's not that easy. Who goes on the No. 1 power play? Who goes on No. 2? Will the No. 2 man be happy?

Egos matter.

Bylsma is lucky Fleury is so strong mentally. Fleury was on top of his game Monday night from the start, stopping the world's best goal-scorer, Steven Stamkos, coming alone down the slot midway through the first period when the Penguins led, 1-0. He made his best save midway through the second period, sliding across his crease to rob Keith Aulie after a wonderful centering pass from Martin St. Louis when it was 1-1.

"We needed a couple of big saves from Marc," Bylsma said. "That allowed us to stay in the game."

It's hard to blame Fleury for any of the three Tampa Bay goals. Stamkos got the first on an easy tap-in after a nice pass from Victor Hedman. Tom Pyatt got the second the hard way, using his face to deflect a shot by Nate Thompson over Fleury, who appeared not to see the puck. Stamkos picked up the third with just 8 seconds left, when he batted a puck out of the air into the net.

The win made for a nice night for Fleury and the Penguins. His evening started when he delivered free pizzas to the kids in line for the team's student ticket program. It ended with him getting his ninth win in his past 11 starts.

Know this: It was a heck of a lot more fun for Fleury than his Saturday night in Montreal.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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