Evgeni Malkin hangs his head late in the third period against the Devils. (vs. New Jersey Devils 11/12/07)
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The only thing the Penguins need more than a win these days is for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to find his game. It's pretty hard to believe he's going to stumble upon it where he was for the 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils last night.
Sitting on a folding chair in the runway leading to the Penguins' dressing room.
Wearing a ballcap -- backward, of course -- instead of his mask.
Watching Dany Sabourin give up a horrible first goal to a Devils' team that has the same rotten smell that's wafting from the Penguins.
This was the fifth time in eight games that Fleury -- the Penguins' franchise netminder -- has been benched in favor of Sabourin, a journeyman.
It's not because Sabourin let in that soft one to the Devils' Travis Zajac fewer than five minutes in. He squared up to Zajac, saw the puck the whole way and somehow let it sneak through his legs, a score that not only breathed life into the Devils, who had lost three out of four games coming in and were playing without star goaltender Martin Brodeur, but also deflated the Penguins and the Mellon Arena crowd.
After that, Sabourin played pretty well. It's hard to blame him for Patrik Elias' winning goal on a three-on-two with fewer than six minutes to go. Sabourin would have been rewarded with a win if somebody -- anybody -- other than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin actually could score a goal for the Penguins. As it was, despite playing against little-used backup goaltender Kevin Weekes, who was making his first start in more than three weeks, your favorite hockey club was beaten again, for the fourth game in a row and the sixth time in seven. Don't look now, but it's 7-10-1 and closer to last place in the Eastern Conference than it is to a playoff spot as the season creeps toward the quarter-pole.
But that's not the point this morning.
The point is the Penguins need to get Fleury going.
They will go only as far as he carries them, not just this season, but next season and, if things go according to the franchise's master plan, for many seasons to come.
The problem is coach Michel Therrien doesn't appear to have a clue how to help Fleury. Sitting him five times this early in the season is bad enough. What's worse is that Therrien publicly called Fleury "fragile" after he played poorly in the Penguins' 5-2 loss at Philadelphia Saturday night, and did so again last night. It's one thing to say the kid isn't playing well. That's obvious. But fragile? There can't be many worse ways to describe a hockey player. Fleury doesn't need that. Not now. Not when he's fighting to get his career back on track.
"It's a fine line," Therrien said, seemingly acknowledging that the Fleury issue is driving him nuts. "It's like his confidence isn't quite there. He's not happy about the way he's performing."
All of this seems so strange from Therrien, who goes back a long way with Fleury -- to their days at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton -- and did a marvelous job of pushing his buttons last season. Alternating kicks in the fanny with pats on the back, Therrien was able to coax 40 wins out of Fleury, a huge factor in the Penguins' 47-point improvement and first playoff appearance in six years.
What the team would give for Therrien to regain that magic touch.
You know, like maybe today.
It's tough because Fleury's inconsistency is frustrating. He's still young, still won't turn 23 until Nov. 28, still is the NHL's youngest starting goaltender. But this is his third full season in the league. He's not a newbie anymore. He should be well beyond the point of making the same mistakes time and again, going down too quickly and leaving so many tantalizing rebounds.
No question, it's up to Fleury to get his act together. He's the one with the most responsibility here.
But it's also Therrien's job to get the most out of Fleury. At the moment, the coach is failing miserably.