Marc-Andre Fleury stops a shot by Tampa Bay's Alexander Killorn as Brooks Orpik defends in the second period Sunday at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was late in the third period and the Penguins were ahead by two goals Sunday night against Tampa Bay when goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury found the puck on his stick and no one bearing down on him.
Anyone who follows Fleury knows what he did next. He launched a shot toward the Lightning's empty net.
This one seemed to have pretty good aim, but the velocity was lacking, and the puck was easily picked off by a Lightning player inside the far blue line.
It's a safe enough play -- even an icing call on a missed shot wouldn't jeopardize things too much with a two-goal lead toward the end of regulation -- and Fleury was left grinning widely behind a mask that features, among other things, a tribute to former Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso.
Matchup: Penguins vs. Florida Panthers, 7:38 p.m. today, BB&T Center, Sunrise, Fla.
TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Jacob Markstrom for Panthers.
Penguins: Are 8-2 on road, best in the Eastern Conference. ... Have scored a power-play goal in 11 games in a row. ... Sidney Crosby has 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists) over past 12 games.
Panthers: Lost to Penguins, 3-1, Friday at Consol Energy Center. ... Have lost seven of past eight games and five in a row at home. ... Are 1-8 when trailing after two periods.
Hidden stat: Florida has one power-play goal in past 24 opportunities and is 0 for 17 in its home losing streak.
Barrasso was a masterful stick-handler but never scored a goal -- only 10 NHL goalies have, for a total of 12 goals -- and Fleury, even with seemingly several years left in his career at 28, might have a difficult time landing one in an opponent's net.
But the Penguins are getting plenty of offense from their skaters, as they did Sunday in a 5-3 win.
What they are getting from Fleury is strong goal prevention.
His 10-3-0 record had him tied with Montreal's Carey Price for most wins in the NHL going into Monday. And while his goals-against average of 2.28 was ranked just 15th, it would be the best of his career if he maintains it for the balance of the season. His .916 save percentage was 18th but would be his third-highest mark if he finishes there.
It's not known which games Fleury will start on a three-stop road trip that begins tonight at Florida, but when he makes his next start he will carry a five-game winning streak into that game.
Fleury seems fine with the arrangement with first-year backup Tomas Vokoun. The two goalies split starts fairly evenly over the first few weeks of the season. When the schedule lightened up a bit, coach Dan Bylsma began to ride the hotter goalie, Fleury.
"It's been good," Fleury said. "I don't ask too many questions. I just try to do my best when I go out, play hard in practice and wait for the coach to tell me whether I'm playing or not."
Over his past nine games, all in February, Fleury is 8-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a.926 save percentage.
And he's doing that under the odd circumstances that go along with a season that was delayed until Jan. 19 and condensed some because of a lockout.
"At first it seemed like we hadn't played in forever," Fleury said. "Now it seems like we've played a lot more games, with the full schedule, all the travel. We've been on the road a lot. It's fun, though. I'd rather be playing or practicing than sitting at home.
"I've kept the same routine now for a long time, so nothing new."
Penguins team captain Sidney Crosby said to fully appreciate Fleury, you have to look at the whole club, at the scoring chances the skaters give up, at the artful and timely saves the team's No. 1 goalie makes. Over those past nine games for Fleury, opponents have averaged 27 shots. The Lightning had 30.
"He was really big," Crosby said of the Tampa Bay game. "I don't think that should go unnoticed. We gave them some chances, and he was there to bail us out."
In particular, Fleury stopped Nate Thompson and Richard Panik on breakaways. Of the three goals he yielded, one bounced in off of Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, another glanced off of Penguins center Joe Vitale and right to Cory Conacher, and one was a laser by sniper Steve Stamkos while Tampa Bay had a five-on-three power play.
"A little bit of bad luck there, but our guys get four or five goals, so ... awesome," Fleury said.
Fleury has no shutouts this season. His most recent one was Feb. 21, 2012, against the New York Rangers. His next one will move him out of a tie with Barrasso and give him a franchise-record 23.
Even without a shutout in 14 appearances, Fleury is having a strong season. He is cutting down the angle on shooters and not shrinking into the net.
Just ask a proven scorer.
"I think he looks pretty confident," Crosby said. "Even when he's playing the puck and things, he's challenging a lot. He looks big in there. I think when you see a goalie challenging the way he is, you know that he's pretty confident.
"Hopefully, we don't make him work too hard [by giving up a lot of scoring chances], but he's been really playing pretty well for us."
NOTES -- Defenseman Mark Eaton, 35, who has been practicing informally with the Penguins, signed a one-year, $750,000 contract. He was a member of the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup team. ... To make room on the roster, the Penguins placed center Evgeni Malkin (concussion) on injured reserve. He could be activated as early as this weekend, but has been ruled out for the road trip, which ends Saturday at Montreal. ... The Penguins were given the day off Monday from practice.