No meltdown by Fleury; just blossoming at the right time

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WASHINGTON -- Even at the NHL level, where every potential puck angle is analyzed, every blade sharpened to a gem's facet, and every play work-shopped to exhaustion, hockey with the lights up and rock anthems blaring remains all but purely chaotic. Getting hockey players to play to a script can be roughly compared to herding alley cats.

But getting them to play to a specific story line?

Please.

So sure, it's just a little remarkable that the newest collision of the game's premier brands, Sidney Crosby vs. the Washington genius Alex Ovechkin, the first since they were seen shoving each other on national television and heard blistering each other in the postgame testimony, would turn inalterably on two shots, one by Crosby, one by Ovechkin.

Without assigning it any ridiculous proportions, it was only that amid all the pressure the deafening Verizon Center can generate that Crosby scored to give the Penguins a 4-3 shootout win yesterday, a result not guaranteed until Ovechkin failed at precisely the same challenge.

Let that settle things for the moment.

How can it matter, for the immediate future of the reborn Penguins, that Ovechkin thinks Crosby talks too much and that Crosby thinks Ovechkin breaches decorum when he points at the Penguins bench?

Talking and pointing?

This is a game with slashing, punching, gouging, kneeing, face-washing, slew-footing, boarding, elbowing, crosschecking and the occasional felonious assault.

Talking and pointing? Oh, that's where we draw the line.

"The great thing about sports," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was saying last night in startlingly general terms, "is that it challenges you every day because you get to play against good teams and great players, and that's what the Washington Capitals are, a good team with great players. It wasn't perfect, but our goaltender played great."

So with that verbal drop pass, Bylsma nailed the whole point of yesterday, which is only that Marc-Andre Fleury, hounded off this very stage just two weeks ago to the day, won his sixth consecutive game, this one by generating save after impossible save after impossible save, the last one against the game's most feared and accomplished goal scorer and the first known human to get under Crosby's skin to the point of public rebuke.

In the seconds after Crosby slid a deft forehand past Jose Theodore in the shootout, Ovechkin circled behind the red line as he formulated his strategy against Fleury. Alexander Semin and Viktor Kozlov had already failed, so it was up to The Great No. 8.

"I thought he might try high to the glove side," Fleury said. "I don't know if maybe he missed it or what?"

More likely Ovechkin over-penetrated by some fraction of an ice chip. His shot clumped harmlessly onto Fleury's pad, and Penguins poured over the boards to celebrate not only a wrap on the story line but the end of the first 5-0 road trip in the history of flightless waterfowl.

"That's the way he's been, real solid, ever since the last game here," said goaltending coach Gilles Meloche. "Even today in the third period, he wasn't shaky."

That's when Ovechkin and Brooks Laich scored within 49 seconds of each other, slapping away a 3-1 Pittsburgh lead, and sending the delirious Capitals crowd into leering chants of "Fleuurrry! Fleuurrry!"

But instead of a meltdown, Washington got the best of Fleury's best from that moment on. He stopped legendary sniper Sergei Federov. He foiled an excellent chance for Mike Green, the league's top-scoring defenseman. He stopped two more in overtime, the last when Green fired a Brooks Orpik giveaway at him with 0:08 left.

"He's been that way the whole trip," said center Max Talbot, who helped kill three power plays against the league's second-best unit. "We really needed him on the penalty kill today. I don't think he played any better today, he's just been better the whole trip. This was a big team effort but I feel good for him because when you're going bad, the goalie always gets the worst of it."

No one would have been real put out had Fleury come in here and been beaten 4-1, with the Penguins going home with an eight-point trip rather than a historic one, especially with the howls from Washington's 5-2 win here Feb. 22 still echoing in his psyche.

"Tough games like that happen in hockey," Fleury said. "Sometimes you lose even when you play well. I'm always happy to play, so I never let it bother me."

Yesterday, he made the only team to beat Dan Bylsma look like just another team that can't, and he made the Penguins look like a very viable entity.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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