Gene Collier: Without question, Fleury stops the show



NEW YORK -- At the height of his powers as well as at many different levels, Marc-Andre Fleury has a way of uncomplicating things, whether it’s in the clipped English with which he delivers his economical explanations or in the way he can simplify a playoff series.

This Flower is currently breathtaking.

“That’s two shutouts in a row,” said a Gotham media operative to Fleury Monday night in the winning dressing room.

“Huh?” Fleury responded.

“You have two shutouts in a row now,” came the probing follow-up.

“Yes,” Fleury said, “so what’s the question?”

There was no question, of course, just as there is no question that this playoff series against the New York Rangers is going to get really uncomplicated if the Blueshirts are going to refrain from scoring.

I mean at all.

“Just trying to make the next save; I don’t think about it too much,” said Fleury, the first Penguins goaltender to post two shutouts in one playoff series, the first to piggy-back them. “Just not getting too high or too low. You look at the video and see what you can do better.

“I was a little busier [Monday night], a little more action around the net, but it’s good.”

This Metropolitan Division final came with its own version of the ever-annoying chicken-and-egg question, with just a little wrinkle on the tense.

Thus, it was not which came first, but which would come first, a Sidney Crosby goal, a Rick Nash goal, or your long-shot choice, a goal by the New York Rangers power play, which had done a pretty fair slice of performance art in staging the hockey equivalent of the great Con Ed blackout of 1977.

Of course, that lasted only a couple of days that July; the Rangers own blackout has gone on for a couple of weeks, reaching a perfectly ridiculous 0 for 34 by the end of hockey Monday night at Madison Square Garden.

When Crosby took a stretch pass from Robert Bortuzzo and pumped it past King Henrik Lundqvist early in that middle period for the first Penguins goal of Game 3, it didn’t so much answer the question as challenge hockey’s capricious script-writers.

Could New York tie it up late on a Rick Nash goal and win it in overtime with their first power play goal since a month ago?

No, you can’t mount that kind of narrative, not even on Broadway.

This plot didn’t twist much at all, in fact, as Jussi Jokinen, one of the most underappreciated actors on the postseason stage, whistled one to the back of the New York net unassisted late in the second for a 2-0 lead, which looked positively mountainous given the galloping brilliance of Fleury.

Fleury sculpted a second monument to himself in as many nights, stopping Rangers breakaways, gloving impossible shots at all angles, and taking his share of dumb hockey luck as well. Flower stopped Mats Zuccarello from the right circle at 8:02 of the middle period, but a rebound leaked tantalizingly into the slot, where Zuccarello collected it and appeared to chip it over the goaltender’s shoulder for what would than have been a tying goal.

But no: Puck hits crossbar, puck drops to ice at goal line, puck turns right from the left-hand lane, puck tightropes goal line and walks safely outside the right post.

“I had no clue what happened on that,” said Fleury, who turned away 35 shots. “When I saw the replay, I thought, ‘Well, a little thank you to the crossbar.’ ”

Any optimism the Rangers’ harbored for solving Fleury in the third period probably evaporated with about 12 minutes left, when Nash beat Crosby out of the right corner and roared toward the goalmouth only to have Fleury swat the puck away. When Marc Staal collected it at the left point and blistered it through a forest of a sticks and limbs, it appeared Fleury had been beaten, but he gloved that one too, with no evident expense of extraordinary effort.

By that point, of course, the Rangers were well into their sixth consecutive period of scoreless hockey, and the strong notion that New York was feeling the fatigue of being overscheduled for this round was everywhere but on the mind of Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who simply didn’t want to hear it.

“We traveled like they did [Sunday] night,” Vigneault said, acknowledging nothing about this, New York’s fifth game in seven nights. “We got on a plane, like they did. Came here. We’re competing for the Stanley Cup. We’re excited.”

Perhaps he is, but his enthusiasm isn’t transferring to his tired club, and certainly not to the audience at the world’s most famous arena. Until they decided to boo the Rangers power play off the ice in the final minutes, this was as quiet as I’ve heard a Madison Square Garden crowd since the appearance of an undistinguished hound group at the Westminster Dog Show in, I think, 1999.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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