Much of playoff pressure for Penguins focused on Fleury
May 1, 2013 12:00 PM
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's goals-against average and save percentage were in the middle of the pack, but when it came to the number that counts -- wins -- his 23 were just one shy of the league lead.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There was a time when a significant slice of the Penguins' fan base believed -- and wasn't shy about saying -- that the team never would win a Stanley Cup with Marc-Andre Fleury as its go-to goalie.
Said it right up until the night of June 12, 2009, when Fleury preserved a 2-1 victory in Game 7 of the Cup final against Detroit at Joe Louis Arena by throwing himself in front of a Nicklas Lidstrom shot as time ran out.
So much for never.
But four years later, the mantra from the remaining doubters -- and there seems to be more than a few -- has morphed into something closer to "Never again."
Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Evgeni Nabokov for Islanders.
Had best home record in East, 18-6-0 in regular season. ... Penalty killing ranked 25th in league (79.2 percent) but did not allow a power-play goal in last eight home games (24 of 24). ... Brenden Morrow had 6 goals, 14 points over last 11 games.
Had third-best road record in East, 14-6-4. ... Road power play ranked fifth in NHL (19.1 percent). ... Leading scorer John Tavares ranked 17th with 47 points.
Penguins winger Chris Kunitz was one of two NHL players (Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay) who never went without a point in consecutive games this season.
And nothing less than 16 victories in a playoff run, like the one that begins when the Penguins take on the New York Islanders tonight at Consol Energy Center, figures to change that, at least for some people.
None of whom, it should be noted, share a locker room with Fleury.
If his teammates have any question about Fleury, it likely is why so many people on the outside are unwilling to acknowledge the role he plays in their success.
"In my book, he's one of the best," defenseman Kris Letang said. "He's in my top three, by far."
While some of the criticism of Fleury's work in previous playoffs -- and skepticism about what he'll do in this postseason, and those to come -- might be unduly harsh, it clearly is rooted in reality.
The Penguins have lost to lower-seeded opponents in three consecutive playoffs and in each instance, the other club's goalie -- Jaroslav Halak, Dwayne Roloson and Ilya Bryzgalov -- outplayed Fleury.
The most exasperating of those losses came against Philadelphia in Round 1 last spring, and it didn't happen because Bryzgalov stole the series.
Rather, the Penguins seemed to decide that was a swell time to abandon everything they knew about playing team defense and killing penalties, and Fleury sunk to the level of most of his co-workers.
Aside from a few spasms of brilliance, such as when he singlehandedly saved their 3-2 victory in Game 5, the series was one to forget for Fleury. If he could.
"He was not at his best, like he was during the Cup [run in 2009], but you couldn't really say it was [Fleury's] fault," Letang said. "The [penalty-killers] didn't do the job. There were a lot of things that didn't go our way."
Fleury has discussed the Flyers series publicly more than a few times since last spring, but declined to do so as Game 1 against the Islanders approached.
"I just want to forget about it and move on," he said.
Whatever sour memories he carried from the Philadelphia series didn't curdle Fleury's play during the just-concluded regular season. He put up a 23-8 record, one victory shy of the league lead. The three goaltenders who had 24 appeared in at least nine more games than the 33 in which Fleury played.
His 2.39 goals-against average placed him 17th in the NHL, while his .916 save percentage tied him for 19th.
Numbers like those won't win a Vezina Trophy, but they did help his team win the Eastern Conference.
"In my book, [Fleury had] maybe two questionable games all year," goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said.
Fleury had an excellent 2011-12 regular season, too, but all he accomplished then was overshadowed by the Dumpster fire that was the Philadelphia series. And reputations, like championships, are earned during the playoffs.
A year ago, the Penguins were fully committed to Fleury, but the addition of Tomas Vokoun and his strong showing in the regular season, might have Fleury on a shorter leash.
If his game slips out of sync -- especially if it leads to the Penguins falling behind in a series -- the coaches might not hesitate to turn to Vokoun.
Not because of a lack of confidence in Fleury but because, in a bottom-line business, the priority is to win games, and that means deploying the personnel they believe gives their team the best chance to do so.
Although Vokoun's presence might put a bit of extra pressure on Fleury, there's plenty of that already for a guy who plays the most important, stressful position on a team expected to make a serious run at the Cup.
"It doesn't matter what kind of pressure you have," Fleury said. "You have to deal with it. Find ways to get the job done."