It all comes down to Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins season always comes down to Fleury, doesn't it?
Talk about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang all you want. They are fabulous hockey players. But they won't have as much to do with the Penguins' success or failure in the NHL's shortened regular season and certainly in the Stanley Cup playoffs as their goaltender, Fleury.
Bylsma, Crosby and Neal talk about the return of Malkin
Penguins coach and players talk about the return of Evgeni Malkin as the start of the NHL season approaches. (Video by Andrew Rush; 1/14/2013)
Or maybe their goaltender, Tomas Vokoun?
No, I'm sticking with Fleury.
I'm saying it comes down to Fleury.
"I've been around a long time," he said. "I understand what goes with being the goaltender. You're the last person before the puck goes into the net. Everybody sees it. Everybody blames you when it does."
Fleury has the experience to deal with that extraordinary pressure. It's hard to believe this is his ninth NHL season. Didn't he just come into the league yesterday as an 18-year-old kid? Now, he's 28, a grown man, a newly married man.
This should be Fleury's prime time as a goaltender. He thought last season was his most consistent year, at least during the regular season. It's hard to argue. He won 42 games, one shy of Tom Barrasso's single-season franchise record. His next win will be his 227th, which will break Barrasso's career franchise record.
"But if you look at it again, when we went to the Cup final and won the Cup, I was pretty young," Fleury said. "So I don't really know when your prime is supposed to be."
Fleury is right. In 2008, the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games in the Cup final. In 2009, they won the Cup against the Red Wings in seven games. Fleury was strong in both playoff runs, especially in decisive Game 7 in Detroit, a 2-1 win.
But since then?
Fleury has been ordinary in the postseason, if that.
The Penguins have lost three consecutive playoff series. They lost in seven games in the second round to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, in seven games in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and in six games in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers last season.
"Anytime you lose in the playoffs, it's tough ... especially against them," Fleury said, biting off his words about the Flyers.
The Penguins and Flyers will play again Saturday in Philadelphia, their first game after a long NHL lockout. The most recent time the Penguins played there was April 22 in Game 6. The Flyers' Claude Giroux knocked Crosby on his backside with a check off the opening faceoff, then beat Fleury for a short-side goal just 32 seconds into the game. The Flyers went on to win, 5-1, to put the underachieving Penguins out of their misery. The Penguins had started the playoffs as the favorite to win the Cup. Instead, they had one of the worst collapses in franchise history.
It would be unfair to blame Fleury entirely for the team's lame showing. Crosby and Malkin weren't very good. Neal was suspended for a game after losing his cool in Game 3 after he and the other Penguins thought they were Flyers and started playing like goons. The penalty-kill was awful.
But Fleury also had a poor series. He gave up 17 goals before being benched for Brent Johnson in the third period of Game 3. He allowed 26 goals in the six games. His only great game was the Penguins' 3-2 win in Game 5. He played spectacularly in the third period, at one point making seven saves on a Flyers power play.
"Game 4 wasn't bad," Fleury said.
It helps when your team scores a touchdown and a field goal as the Penguins did in a 10-3 win.
"Game 1 was good ... well, maybe not good, but it wasn't bad. There were a couple of bad bounces," Fleury said.
A bad break, too. The Flyers trailed, 3-0, in the second period when Danny Briere beat Fleury on a breakaway after clearly being offside. They ended up coming back, taking down the Penguins in overtime, 4-3. They also came back from a 3-1 deficit after one period to win Game 2, 8-5. Fleury didn't try to say he was good that game.
"Too many goals went in and we lost," he said. "That can't happen."
Penguins management thought so little of Fleury's performance against the Flyers that it traded for Vokoun in the offseason. The primary reason is to give Fleury more rest. But it's clear that coach Dan Bylsma won't hesitate to go to Vokoun if Fleury struggles.
Fleury is OK with that. Just don't suggest to him that Vokoun was brought in to push him. That thought wiped his smile off his face.
"It doesn't matter who I play with. I try my best every game and every practice," Fleury said. "I don't think anyone has to tell me to work harder."
Fleury will work well with Vokoun. "Tomas is a very good goalie ... I'll be watching him and maybe get some tips from him." Fleury is a great teammate. Everyone says the same thing about Vokoun, who has gone out of his way to say there is no goaltender controversy here, that the top job is Fleury's.
But the competition should help Fleury's game. This is the first time in a long time that there has been even a hint that his No. 1 status could be in jeopardy. He might not believe he needs that push from Vokoun, but I'm thinking it will make him better.
Nothing less than the Penguins season is riding on it.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published January 15, 2013 5:00 AM