Fleury key to the series

Another stellar performance from Marc-Andre Fleury is what Penguins need the most

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Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik wanted to make a point. Not of the concussive variety like those he made against the Detroit Red Wings the other night during that memorable seek-and-destroy shift. An instructive point.

"How old is he now?" Orpik asked of his goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Twenty-three, he was told.

"That gets overlooked sometimes," Orpik said. "He broke into the league when he was 18. Most goalies don't break in until they're his age now. That's why, to me, it's amazing what he's doing. All of us know we wouldn't be here without him."

The Stanley Cup final.

That's an awfully long way to carry a team for a guy who looks like he's still 12.

"Twelve? That might be pushing it," Orpik said, grinning.

Fleury might have a baby face, but he was all man against the Red Wings in Game 3 Wednesday night. He was much better than Detroit veteran goalie Chris Osgood, a big reason the Penguins were 3-2 winners at Mellon Arena in a game they desperately needed. Osgood had outplayed Fleury in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit by pitching a couple of shutouts, although the Penguins -- to a man -- will tell you they made it easy for him by not getting the puck on his net.

"Goaltending is everything," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said before the series.

So it is.

It's the one reason to think the Penguins still have a chance -- maybe not a great chance, but a chance nonetheless -- of stealing the Cup from a powerful Detroit team that is their equal or better in every way but one.

Fleury is better than Osgood.

It was nice to see Fleury prove it in Game 3 after he wasn't close to his best in the two losses in Detroit. Penguins coach Michel Therrien suggested nerves might have been the problem. Fleury is young, and this is his first time in the final. His problems started when he tripped and fell coming on to the Joe Louis Arena ice for Game 1 and continued that night when he let in a wraparound goal by Mikael Samuelsson and created a second for Samuelsson with a failed clearing attempt. He was even worse in Game 2 when he let a couple of goals trickle through him.

"It was a little tough," Fleury said, "because it seemed like I allowed more goals in those two games than I did through the whole playoffs."

Fleury fished seven pucks out of his net in Detroit. He had given up just 24 goals in the Penguins' 14 games through the first three rounds.

But Fleury didn't let the Red Wings get in his head. That might have happened earlier in his career, but he's so much more mature now, so much stronger mentally. Coming home helped, too. Fleury has won his past 19 starts at Mellon Arena.

"I like his composure," Therrien said.

Fleury has to be a rock because the Penguins aren't going to score a lot of goals against Detroit. That's more because of the Red Wings' stifling defensive system than Osgood. Even in the Game 3 win, the Penguins managed just 24 shots.

"I know I didn't have good games in Detroit, and it was frustrating because we hadn't lost two games in a row in the playoffs," Fleury said. "But I still was confident if I could make some key saves and give our guys a chance that we would get a couple of goals."

That's exactly how it turned out. The start of Game 3 went much like the first two games with the Red Wings getting nine of the first 10 shots. But Fleury stoned them, making huge early saves on Pavel Datsyuk and Brad Stuart. If either shot had been a goal, the Penguins almost certainly would have lost and would be facing elimination in Game 4 tonight.

"He made fabulous saves when the game was tied," Therrien said.

Fleury was just as good after Sidney Crosby scored twice to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead and Adam Hall bounced one in off Osgood to nudge the gap to 3-1. He made two great saves on Jiri Hudler -- the second on a deflection -- and also was a little lucky when a shot by Tomas Holmstrom off a rebound hit his right post in the third period.

"Oh, [expletive]!" Fleury said when asked what he thought when he saw that loose puck on Holmstrom's stick and his net virtually open.

What a beautiful sound that shot made when it tinged off the iron.

"I'll take it because we hit a couple of posts at the other end," Fleury said.

The only goals the Red Wings scored came when Johan Franzen beat defenseman Rob Scuderi with an inside move to get an unimpeded shot and when a slapper by Samuelsson deflected off Orpik's stick.

In other words, Fleury was terrific.

You know, like he has to be tonight for the Penguins to tie the series at 2-2.

"I try not to put too much pressure on myself," Fleury said. "I don't think I have to be perfect. I know we're going to get some goals. Even if we don't get a lot, all I can do is try my best."

Fleury's best may or may not be good enough for the Penguins to win the Cup.

Only this we know for sure:

Anything less than Fleury's best and the Penguins have no chance.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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