Smizik: Fleury flowering at precisely the right time

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The Stanley Cup playoffs continue to be a major stage for the Penguins, a coming-out party, of sorts, for their young stars. No player has commanded the stage with more dominance than center Evgeni Malkin, who is establishing himself as one of the best players in the world.

Last night, though, it was a time for somewhat lesser-known players. Max Talbot, for example. Talbot's a high-character guy, not a high-scoring guy. But there he was with the winner last night in a 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final.

But more than Talbot and at least as much as Malkin and Sidney Crosby this has been a series for Marc-Andre Fleury, the 23-year-old goaltender who is playing for his name and his fortune.

Fleury was outstanding, as he has been throughout the post season. Neither Flyers goal, one on a power play and another on a breakaway, could be attributed to poor play on his part.

When guys like Crosby and Marian Hossa score, as they did last night, it tends to accentuate the Penguins' well-known offensive talent. But there's another side to this team that this high skill level sometimes tends to blur, and that would be this:

The Penguins also happen to be pretty good when the other team has the puck.

A lot of that -- but not all of it -- has to do with Fleury, who has won 17 consecutive games at Mellon Arena. He hasn't lost on home ice since Nov. 21.

There's nothing like a hot goaltender, and Fleury is the personification of that, to inspire a team. He's 10-1 in the playoffs. Only once has he allowed more than three goals, only twice has he allowed more than two.

"I think when you have a goaltender playing that well, the whole team feels his confidence, " said Crosby.

Fleury has been a different goalie since returning from a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the lineup from early December until late February. Although he was coming on strong before the injury, he seemed more mature and fundamentally better upon his return.

First, he won back the job that he seemed to have lost to Ty Conklin while he was injured. He did it the only way available: Superb play. Conklin, as well has he had played, never had a chance to keep his job with the way Fleury performed.

Of course, the regular season is one thing, the post season quite another. Fleury had been just short of a bust in the playoffs, going all the way back to his junior days. In eight post seasons, from Cape Breton to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the Penguins, he never posted a goals-against average lower than 3.00. Nor had he done anything to distinguish himself in international competition.

So this playoff run has been a test for Fleury and it's a test he's acing.

"When there were breakdowns [tonight], Marc-Andre was really good," said coach Michel Therrien. "He gave us a chance to win. He's one of the biggest reasons we're doing so well. "

A goaltender can't be much better than the players in front of him. Defense is a team concept and that's something Therrien has stressed. Fleury, for his part, has flourished in this team concept.

Therrien was asked if the Penguins' stingy defense was a factor of the five guys in front of the goalie or the goalie.

"I will say it is a combination of both. First of all, Marc-Andre, he's really square to the puck, The game slowed down in front of him. That's normal. Well, he's only 23, but he has got a few years of experience and you ask any goalie with time and experience, and the game slows down in front of you so he doesn't have to make those big saves when he's out of position.

"And in the meantime, we've played a much better defensive game as well. You put those two together, and you get the result that defensively you are better. "

It's early -- the Penguins haven't even made it to the final round -- but Fleury, who will be a restricted free agent after the season, has established himself as a serious candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the MVP of the playoffs.

In a way, that's a problem for the Penguins. The better Fleury plays, the more other teams will covet him. What team wouldn't want a goaltender who can carry his team to the Stanley Cup finals?

In all likelihood, there will be some serious money offers for Fleury when this is over. The Penguins will have to make a major decision. Do they pay Fleury or do they settle for the high-level draft choices they'd receive in return?

All eyes, for now, are on the Cup. The Penguins are in the midst of the greatest run in hockey and the most difficult in all of sports.

No one looks more ready for this challenge than Fleury.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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