Fleury's play limits options

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For the optional Penguins practice before tonight's Game 5, the options for characterizing the impact of Marc-Andre Fleury on these throbbing Eastern Conference quarterfinals were again constricted by the English language and, more suffocatingly, by hockey convention itself.

Here are just a couple of options: Reader's choice.

Is Fleury's brilliance in frustrating the snot out of the Flyers better described as a miracle of elastic athleticism, or a celebration of athletic elasticism, and shouldn't that second one be elasticity, as elasticism is more likely one of the thousands of ancient Eastern religions?

Happily, what Fleury did to the Flyers in a South Philadelphia cauldron called Game 4 -- stopping 34 shots in the final two periods, 16 of them on the power play, some via whirling, spinning, impossible reactions only he can imagine -- always emerges in the hockey glossary in one of only two spots.

Again, you have the option.

Was it a case where "he stood on his head?" Or was he simply "unconscious?"

For help with this option, you may refer to this rough transcript of our conversation yesterday, starting with your reliably annoying columnist.

"Can you stand on your head?"

Fleury: "I could try."

"No, I mean the way they always say about the goalie, 'He stood on his head.' "

Fleury: "I've never done it, but I've heard that a lot."

"Me too. But could you actually do it?"

Fleury: "Just my head? No."

"If you use your hands?"

Fleury: "Oh, sure."

"Could you do it with your equipment on?"

Fleury: "I've done cartwheels [in equipment], so yeah."

There was no need to ask him about being unconscious, as we've all experienced some success with that tactic, but for me, in terms of goalie performance, I'll take one who's standing on his head any day. Unconscious goalies generally end up along the ice surface and are clearly vulnerable top shelf.

The only instance in which the Penguins goaltender was left vulnerable in Game 4 arose from the kinetic collision of teammate Brooks Orpik and Philadelphia's Joffrey Lupul, which occurred in Fleury's lap and left him in the back of the net like a dazed tuna.

"A couple times I was on my bum in the back of the net," Fleury said. "They were coming pretty hard. They had more power plays [eight] than you'd like, but our guys still battled hard in front of me."

True enough, but don't let the infallibly humble Fleury complicate anything for you. The 3-1 series lead these Penguins will smuggle into Game 5 would be fully inverted if it weren't for No. 29, the smiling netminder with the chocolate Tootsie Pop eyes and grifter's nerve. Students of Fleury's career, who have followed him long before he was the first player chosen in the 2003 draft, struggled yesterday with where to slide his Game 4 performance along the mantel of his career. Even with that, Fleury was glad to help.

"It wasn't overtime; it wasn't in the finals," Fleury said, preserving for his private rankings the night of June 2, 2008, when all he did was stop 55 Detroit shots to win the fifth-longest game in the history of the Stanley Cup final. "But it was a good feeling. I'm just very happy about it. It was such a tight game. It's always great to be able to win a game in Philly."

The object from Fleury's perspective is not to have to do it again Saturday afternoon, a prospect the Penguins will avoid if they can win tonight, when Fleury will presumably give them every opportunity. Again.

"That was definitely up there," Bill Guerin was saying yesterday about the goalkeeper's contribution to the Penguins' third win in this series. "You rely on everyone at one point or another in any playoff series, but last night was Flower's night. But that's what you need from your goalie sometimes in the playoffs."

You need it especially on those occasions when just about everyone else is getting outplayed certainly, but for the Penguins, that has only been the case in Games 2, 3 and 4. Shots in Tuesday night's last two periods were 34-13 in the Flyers' favor, and shots in the past two games, 77-55, on the same slant. It's a testament to the Penguins' resilience and playoff temperament that they were able to withstand the final eight minutes after the Flyers sliced their lead in half the other night, but to pretend they'd still be comfortably ahead in this series without an otherworldly performance by Fleury is delusion.

If things don't go Fleury's way tonight, don't count on seeing anything resembling the Martin Brodeur stick throw. He's not wired for it. He plays like a superstar and credits everyone else. Thanks his defensemen, goaltending coach Gilles Meloche, his father, the Zamboni driver, the nacho chef, the butcher, the baker ... yeah.

Any available option.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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