Matured Fleury is the key

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OTTAWA -- The big, noisy, hostile Scotiabank Place crowd didn't shake Marc-Andre Fleury this time. The emotional return of Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson from your typical hockey playoff injury -- unspecified, of course -- didn't get to him. Not even the goal he gave up to Nick Foligno in the second period, which gave the Senators their first lead of the series, threw him off his game.

Fleury stood tall through it all last night.

As a result, the Penguins need just a win here tomorrow night to sweep the Senators into next season and move on to Round 2 in their pursuit of Lord Stanley's Cup.

The Penguins' 4-1 win in Game 3 long will be remembered for the goals Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal scored in the first 90 seconds of the third period. But Fleury gave them a chance -- especially early -- by stopping everything the Senators threw at him, including Alfredsson, who was playing for the first time in the series.

"Our leader," they called Alfredsson during a stirring first-period video tribute in honor of his 100th career playoff game.

"Their captain, their heart and soul," was how Penguins coach Michel Therrien described Alfredsson.

Well, Fleury made sure Alfie was no factor.

None of the Senators were, really.

It was no shock that the Penguins were outshot, 9-3, in the first nine minutes, not considering the Senators' desperation after losing the first two games at Mellon Arena. But it also wasn't shocking that Fleury turned back everything in that first period.

"That's when you need your goaltender to make a difference," Therrien said. "He made some key saves for us. He kept us in the game ..."

Therrien paused, before making his final point.

"I'm not surprised," he said. "He was the best goaltender in the NHL the last 15 games and has been the best goaltender in the playoffs. Look at his save percentage, his goals against. He's got the best record."

Much was made before the series of how much the Penguins have grown and matured since their quick playoff exit against the Senators last spring. It seems obvious now that no one grew and matured more than Fleury.

What a difference there was between this game and Fleury's first playoff game here last spring, which just happened to be his first playoff game, period. It took the Senators only 97 seconds to score last spring -- a goal by defenseman Andrej Meszaros -- when Fleury caught his skate on his goal post and tumbled. Ottawa made it 2-0 five minutes later when a shot by winger Chris Kelly snuck between Fleury's legs.

The Penguins never recovered -- going out in five games -- even though Fleury played better as the series progressed.

Clearly, the Senators wanted to swarm Fleury the same way last night. They thought they had figured him out in Game 2 when they scored three times in fewer than 18 minutes after he had stoned them for more than 90 minutes, including a 4-0 shutout in Game 1. The Penguins still won Game 2, 5-3, but it was an eager Ottawa bunch that took the ice for Game 3.

Fleury was up to the challenge. This time, there was no tripping and falling. There were no cheap goals.

"He's just so comfortable in net right now, so confident," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "That makes all of the rest of us confident."

Thanks to Fleury, the Penguins went to the first intermission, 0-0.

"That was definitely their best period," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Someone said it in here, 'That's the best they've got.' We came out of it, 0-0. That felt pretty good."

The Senators did beat Fleury on Foligno's goal at 1:11 of the second period for a 1-0 lead, but Whitney said it deserves an asterisk. Foligno batted the puck out of the air and past Whitney to soar in alone on Fleury.

"Put that one on me," Whitney said. "I should have played the body, but I was convinced the puck was going to the corner. That was my bad. Fleury had no chance."

The Senators certainly didn't get into Fleury's head because of that goal. He would not be beaten again, finishing with 33 saves. In the three wins, he has stopped 86 of 90 shots.

That Senators' lead lasted just 4:28 before the Penguins' Max Talbot scored. When Crosby and Staal got their goals early in the third period, the game was over.

Maybe the series, too.

Fleury wasn't picked as one of the three stars. The Penguins' Marian Hossa was No. 1 with a goal and two assists, Crosby was No. 2 and Foligno was No. 3, thanks to some home cookin'.

Fleury had a right to complain but passed. And why not? His teammates' respect is more important, isn't it?

"He was big for us early and really shut the door at the end," Whitney said. "He got us the win."

Three of 'em in this series, actually.

The way Fleury is playing, many more are ahead.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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