Breathtakingly talented goaltenders on breathtakingly miserable hockey teams rarely stand out in the National Hockey League, just as galloping incompetence has a way of negating all kinds of potential in almost every legitimate pursuit.
That's why I thought Marc-Andre Fleury wore those ridiculously garish pads, to allow himself and his marvelous skills to stand out in spite of his boys-of-wimper circumstances.
"When I was in the World Junior Championships [for Team Canada in 2003], I got those pads," he corrected in the hours before the serio-comic Penguins-Canadiens ballet last night at Mellon Arena. "Guys came to know me because of my yellow pads. It's a bit of a superstition now. It would be too hard not to wear them."
At a position where players are often more meticulous about their appearance than their superstitions, Fleury brings to the ice a pair of foam leggings that look as though he fashioned them from the remains of a back porch sofa. In an era when the Penguins have established themselves in sartorial officialdom as wearing black and Las Vegas Gold, Fleury comes out night after night in black and Blawnox Yella.
But ugly as they are, the thing that Penguins opponents had been starting to observe about those pads is that they're becoming harder and harder to put a puck behind. Since March 11, when Fleury stopped 38 of 41 shots to help the Penguins beat New Jersey, 6-3 -- a performance he followed the very next game by stopping all 22 shots in a 2-0 skunking of Philadelphia -- Fleury had won four of six starts and perhaps unofficially begun the years-long accumulation of consistent competence that will surely make him on of the league's best before too many more birthdays.
Friday night he stopped 25 of 28 to allow Sidney Crosby to harpoon the New York Islanders in overtime.
"Lately it's been pretty good," he said from behind that near-perpetual smile. "I don't know if it's just the fact of getting more experience or if it's just that the team's playing better in general, but I'm starting to feel more confident."
But soon enough, the Penguins would get right back to torturing him. They let Richard Zednik float right in on him on left 70 wing seconds into the game last night, and though Zednik misfired badly, the Canadiens wound up scoring on two of their first three shots, neither of which Fleury could have done much about.
Before the end of two periods, the relentless pressure on Fleury just from his own defense was again on full display. Sergei Gonchar's defensive zone giveaway to Saku Koivu was just another unconscionable mistake Fleury overcame, but when the people in the same sweater you're wearing start chipping it past you, well, that's just not right.
Former Penguin Alex Kovalev's centering pass from behind the goal in the final minute of the second period somehow wound up on the stick of rookie Noah Welch, who spazzed the biscuit top shelf on Fleury for Montreal's fifth goal.
It was Montreal's 23rd shot of the game, meaning the opposition was again right on pace for the usual 34. Montreal's second goal had gone in off the stick of Penguins defenseman Rob Scruderi. Isn't it hard enough keeping the other team out of the net?
Even the fact that Montreal managed only two shots in the final period couldn't obscure the Penguins' proclivity for horrifying defensive errors, as when Brooks Orpik got caught up ice allowing another two-on-one break against Fleury. Michael Ryder flicked that one home for a sixth and final Canadiens goal in a 6-5 victory.
The development of Fleury, one of the organization's competitive keystones, has been a very tricky proposition almost from the minute he was the first player taken in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. His hyper opulent contract had no counterbalance with his short-term value, and his every trip on the shuttle to Baby Penguins Land sparked spasms of second-guessing. The fan base howled again when he spent this seasons first seven-and-a-half weeks in Wilkes-Barre, and only the shocking development of the Adult Penguins starting this hockey season with a persistent imitation of a burning building compelled the judgment that the big club no longer had much to risk with an experienced goalie.
In the darkest months of a black-ice Penguins winter, Fleury has been sliced with a two-edged sword and somehow escaped with his psychological temerity full intact. He has seen most of the astounding 2,400 shots fired on Penguins nets, and been charged with 24 of their 41 losses.
"In hockey the first thing you want is to win; that's always the main thing," said the blade-thin 21-year-old. "When you face that many shots though, it's very hard to have a good goals-against [average].
"But I think, really, this season's been good for me. The more shots I face, the better I'll get."
He has come to the right place for that, but losing in an insidious habit. Even though Fleury's clearly at risk in that aspect, the better students of the organization's marquee goaltender insist that his resilience is very much the equal of his circumstances.
"It's mostly a matter of the speed, adjusting to that," Fleury said. "In the NHL, you have to keep an eye on everybody. They can all score from a lot of places."
Uh-huh. Keep an eye on those guys in black and Vegas gold, too.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.