HAMILTON, Ontario -- Penguins coach Michel Therrien realizes it still is September, and that Marc-Andre Fleury still is 21 years old.
He knows that, for those reasons and many others, it is premature for the Penguins to consider making a drastic move with their goaltending at this point. That it probably isn't prudent to even think too much about it.
But, after getting undistinguished performances from Fleury in his first two exhibition starts, Therrien has made it clear that he expects a lot more from him. And that he expects it soon.
In the wake of the Penguins' 5-4 overtime loss to Washington Friday, when Fleury stopped 19 of 24 shots, Therrien delivered a message that Fleury would be hard-pressed to misinterpret.
"There's no doubt we're looking for more consistency in his game," Therrien said. "Sometimes, he's losing his focus, and he's going to need to get better.
"I've said before that we're going to judge [players based on] performance. Right now, Marc knows that he has to be a lot better than what he's showed. ... It's getting to the point where he has to do the job."
Fleury didn't have an opportunity to do that last night. He stayed at the far end of the bench during the Penguins' 3-2 shootout loss to Buffalo at Copps Coliseum, as Dany Sabourin turned aside 44 of 46 shots during regulation and overtime and nine of 11 in the shootout.
Fleury is scheduled to have tonight off, too, because Jocelyn Thibault will be in goal when the Penguins face Philadelphia at 6:05 in London, Ontario.
That means Fleury probably won't get a chance to upgrade his personal stats until next weekend, when the Penguins close out exhibition play with a home-and-home series against the Sabres.
The good news for him is that, when the opportunity finally arrives, it shouldn't be hard to do. In the wake of a 5-2 loss to Ottawa last Tuesday and the defeat by the Capitals, Fleury's goals-against average (4.39) reads like the yards-per-carry of an all-pro halfback, while his save percentage (.827) would no doubt put him at the bottom of that NHL statistical category.
Fleury, to his credit, does not shrug off lackluster performances simply because it's the preseason. And playing poorly stings more when it happens during a defeat, especially one in which the Capitals got a tying goal with 76 seconds left in regulation, then won it in overtime.
"It doesn't count yet, but it's always tough to lose like that," Fleury said. "Especially in overtime. And, when you're a goalie and give up five goals, that's tougher."
Fleury entered training camp as the Penguins' undisputed No. 1 goalie, and probably isn't in any immediate danger of losing that position. Therrien made it clear he has no qualms about having Fleury as his go-to guy, assuming his play merits it.
"Performance dictates ice time for goalies, defensemen and forwards," he said. "That's the way it is."
Therrien, it should be noted, preaches patience with young players, particularly goaltenders. He thinks it's reasonable to believe Fleury can elevate his game significantly this season, but is not among those who feel it's realistic to expect Fleury to be dominant at this point in his career.
"That's the nature of our business," Therrien said. "We want things to happen quickly. With a goalie, we have to be cautious. They're different. I'm not worried that much about what Marc-Andre Fleury will become [eventually]. He needs to step up his game, there's no doubt. He knows it. Every year, he's gotten better, and I expect he's going to have a good season."
That's a viable projection if Fleury can address some of the soft spots in his game, like rebound control and his play around the net.
"He's 21 years old," Therrien said. "There are a few things he needs to learn about the game. That's normal."
So is the idea that goaltending could be a pivotal variable in the Penguins' season. If they are to have any chance of competing for a playoff berth, reliable goaltending has to be a staple.
Should Fleury be able to provide that, it will be reflected not only in his stats, but in the Penguins' record. Which, he was quick to volunteer, are the numbers that matter most to him.
NOTES -- Nils Ekman and Kristopher Letang of the Penguins scored on Sabres goalie Ryan Miller during the first period. Henrik Tallinder and Jason Pominville got the Buffalo goals during regulation. ... In, the shootout, Sidney Crosby scored on Miller, who rejected Erik Christensen, Ekman, Letang, Michel Ouellet, Ryan Whitney, Ryan Stone, Micki DuPont, Jonathan Filewich and Libor Pivko. Sabourin stopped Derek Roy, Tallinder, Ales Kotalik, Pominville, Jochen Hecht, Jiri Novotny, Paul Gaustad, Adam Mair and Andrej Sekara, but was beaten by Thomas Vanek and Clarke MacArthur. ... The Penguins sent defenseman Wade Skolney to their farm team in Wilkes-Barre, and could pare their roster from 37 to the mid-20s before traveling to West Point tomorrow for three days of practice and team-building activities. ... Evgeni Malkin will get a second opinion on his dislocated left shoulder tomorrow, at which time it likely will be determined if he needs surgery.Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Washington's Donald Brashear tries to wrap a shot around Marc-Andre Fleury Friday night at Mellon Arena. Coach Michel Therrien said he needs to see more consistency out of his young goaltender, who stopped only 19 of 24 shots in the Penguins' 5-4 loss.
Click photo for larger image.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .