PHILADELPHIA -- Marc-Andre Fleury has spent the past few months trying to establish himself as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
And he's done a pretty good job of it.
But for all the good work he has produced while laboring behind the NHL's worst team, his greatest challenge might not come for another week or so, after Fleury joins one of the best clubs in the American Hockey League.
For it is only after the Calder Cup playoffs begin that Fleury will be able to convince skeptics -- and there seem to be many -- that he can perform well in high-stakes games.
The suggestion that he can't might not be rooted in reality -- Fleury's teammates and coaches certainly believe that's the case -- but there hasn't been much evidence to refute it in the past few years.
"It's been a while since I had a strong playoff," Fleury said.
Fleury's play in big games has been criticized since the gold-medal game at the 2004 world junior championships, when he banked a clearing attempt off a defenseman and into his own net as part of a third-period meltdown that made Team USA's comeback victory against Canada possible.
A few months later, Fleury's highly regarded team in Cape Breton was upset in five games in the opening round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs; Fleury was 1-3, with a 3.10 goals-against average after going 8-1-1 in the regular season.
He subsequently went to Wilkes-Barre, where he lost his only postseason start with the Baby Penguins. And last spring, after showing flashes of brilliance during the regular season, he was 0-2 in the playoffs, with a 4.36 goals-against average.
Those are some pretty grim numbers, but guys who played with -- and coached -- him in Wilkes-Barre caution against putting undue emphasis on his statistics there the past few years.
"I don't think it's a bad idea for him to win in the playoffs," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "But as far as him not being able to win a big game, I've always thought that was a load of crap.
"He, what, just turned 21 years old? I'm not about to throw the book at him yet for anything. I think he's got a while before he becomes one of those guys with a bad rap. It's kind of bogus for him to have that thrown on him this early."
Michel Therrien, who coached Fleury in Wilkes-Barre and now has him with the Penguins, agreed.
"I don't think it's a fair statement," he said. "Sometimes, people make comments or a player will get [singled] out because of a bad break. That doesn't mean it's going to [continue] through your career."
Therrien's perspective is significant, since he was the coach who determined Fleury's playoff workload in Wilkes-Barre, the one who decided to give Fleury a start immediately after he joined the Baby Penguins from Cape Breton two years ago.
After watching Fleury stop just 16 of 21 shots in a 5-4 overtime loss to Bridgeport in the first round, Therrien turned to Andy Chiodo and stuck with him until midway through Game 4 of the Calder Cup final against Milwaukee, when Fleury was sent in for mop-up duty.
"We wanted to give [Fleury] an experience right away, and we did," Therrien said. "He didn't have a bad game. A bad break happened to him.
"We decided to go with Chiodo. We were down, 3-1, in that series, but we figured we were playing well enough to deserve a better result."
Last spring, Fleury's only appearance in Round 1 against Binghamton came when he stopped 24 of 29 shots in a 5-2 loss. He got one start against Philadelphia in the next round, turning aside 22 of 26 shots in a 4-1 loss, and made two relief appearances against the Phantoms.
"I needed to change the rhythm of the [Binghamton] series," Therrien said. "I needed to change something. I needed to get the fans involved in the game. That's the reason we put Andy there.
"When you win four games in a row, after that, it's tough to change your [lineup], because you won. He just got caught in that. If you go down the reasons, [the decision] makes sense."
So does the one to have Fleury be the Baby Penguins' go-to goalie in the playoffs, even though Dany Sabourin has put together a sensational season in Wilkes-Barre. Fleury, after all, figures to be part of the Penguins' nucleus for a decade or more.
"I'm sure he's looking forward to playing in the playoffs, playing some games that really mean something," Scuderi said. "Hopefully, he does well."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has a miserable playoff history in the AHL. It would help him to have a good playoff run when he joins Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Click photo for larger image.
Matchup: Penguins at Flyers, 7:08 p.m. today, Wachovia Center, Philadelphia.
TV, radio: OLN, WWSW-FM (94.5).
Probable goaltenders: Sebastien Caron for Penguins, Robert Esche for Flyers.
Penguins: Are 1-1-1 at Wachovia Center this season. ... RW Colby Armstrong has one goal in six games after getting seven in previous nine. ... Have scored eight short-handed goals on road, tied for fourth most in NHL.
Flyers: Have lost three consecutive games at home and are 11-12-6 there since running off nine consecutive early season victories. ... Allowed five man-advantage goals in 5-2 loss Saturday at Toronto and have league-worst penalty-killing percentage of 74.7 at home. ... C Petr Nedved, who has a groin injury, has four goals, seven assists in 23 games since being acquired from Phoenix.
Hidden stat: Penguins are 2-7-1 in past 10 games when outshooting opponent.
Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.