Gene Collier: Fleury's performance changes the entire dynamic of Penguins-Blue Jackets
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno in the third period Friday in Game 2. Goalie coach Mike Bales said he didn't "bat an eyelash" about Fleury coming in for an injured Matt Murray in the series.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On the morning the long, long, long-awaited Penguins postseason began, coach Mike Sullivan sat behind a news conference microphone and made two statements that were patently false:
“It’s hard to make the playoffs in this league” (no, it’s not; in fact, it’s harder to miss them), and “Matt Murray is going to play tonight” (no, he wasn’t).
The first statement was neither here nor there and is better left to beer-blather bickering, but the second misread the most important element of this entanglement with the Columbus Blue Jackets and of every other NHL playoff series always and forever — the maddeningly capricious elements endemic to goaltenders and goaltending.
Of course, Sullivan couldn’t know that Murray, some eight hours later in the formal warm-up for Game 1, was going to aggravate a lower-body injury, thus throwing the entire organ-I-zation in a dizzying wave of déjà vu.
OK, maybe not the entire organ-I-zation.
“I didn’t bat an eyelash about it,” Penguins goalie coach Mike Bales said.
Seriously? In 15 minutes, the playoffs were going to start with the wrong guy in the net for the second spring in a row (where have you gone Jeff Zatkoff?), and Bales offered only an invisible shrug?
“I knew Flower was going to go in and play great,” Bales said. “That’s his character. There were no concerns at all from my side.”
For theater’s sake, there probably was no more compelling way for this particular Penguins team to start its postseason than with a foundational injury. Its March of the Injured Penguins had advanced halfway through April, and as Bales foresaw, Marc-Andre Fleury, the beloved Flower, did go in and play great as the Blue Jackets fired five of the game’s first seven shots on goal, eight of the first 11, nine of the first 12, 10 of the first 13, 16 of the first 19, and a total of 26 before one finally found the net. By then, there was 7:19 left on the third-period clock and the Penguins led, 3-0.
That the Blue Jackets did the same thing Friday night to start Game 2, firing the first seven shots, nine of the first 10, and 11 of the first 14 without ever gaining a lead in this series, only managed to solidify the way the series’ most crucial narrative had inverted in less than 48 hours.
When Murray left the ice Wednesday night, the Penguins were supposed to be the team with the unstable goaltending situation, as neither Murray nor Fleury had enjoyed the scintillating winter of Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky was the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy, having led the Blue Jackets to 50 wins and dominating all the major goalie statistical categories.
But the postseason Bobrovsky is a very different Russian bear. The loss Friday night dropped him to 2-8 in the playoffs. What in the world was he doing in the eighth minute, shuffling the puck along the end boards behind his cage like someone tending a garden near the back fence?
Penguins forward Conor Sheary certainly didn’t know, but he certainly knew what to do about it.
“I just thought he didn’t have many options; their [defensemen] were kind of slow getting back and he had his back turned to me,” Sheary said after he had stormed Bobrovsky’s garden to start the play that earned the Penguins a goal on their first shot. “I figured if I got on him quick he’d have to make a quick decision, and I was able to create a turnover.”
Sheary got the puck he jarred loose to Jake Guentzel, who swept it to Sidney Crosby for a ridiculously easy goal and the lead the Penguins would never relinquish.
“Conor’s very quick and I think sometimes he can surprise people, defensemen and goalies,” said Sullivan, the coach who’s up, 2-0, in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal. “And he’s got a real good stick. I saw him getting up the ice quick and obviously the play developed from there.”
Bobrovsky might have been surprised by Sheary, but he couldn’t have miscalculated Evgeni Malkin’s intentions early in the third period, when Malkin whipped the biscuit at him from the outside arc of the right circle. Yet he managed to look even worse on the Penguins’ third goal of the game and sixth of the series than he had on any Penguins shot so far. The puck hit Bobrovsky somewhere in mid-torso. He fell to his left as though he had been shot, his body steering what was actually a Malkin misfire into the Columbus net to make it 3-1, Penguins.
So as Game 3 looms Sunday evening in Ohio, the most comfortable and competent goaltender in sight appears to be Fleury, and maybe someone ought to notice that if a goalie coach is to be judged on having every available netminding option fully ready to perform at the highest level, Bales must be a pretty darned good one.
“To be honest I don’t really worry about people looking at me or judging me or trying to decide how they feel about it,” Bales said. “I just look at it as making sure the goaltenders are working hard every day and staying focused on what they can focus on and what they can control, which is their attitude every day, their practice habits, how they come to the rink, being good with the guys. If the goalies are focused on all that, then when their opportunity comes, they’re more likely to be prepared and more likely to be successful. It’s nothing specific — oh you’ve got to be ready for this or that, it’s just the focus on the habits necessary to have success.”
That’s the overview, obviously, not the specific coaching model that has enabled Bales to re-vitalize Fleury twice since 2013. That’s when Bales was first elevated to goalie coach, right after Fleury flamed out in the playoffs against Boston and the organization reassigned Gilles Meloche.
The Flower not only rebounded fast from that, he fought through waves of emotional uncertainty this winter, what with its blizzard of trade rumors.
“This year wasn’t difficult,” Bales said. “We just went about our business the way we always do, but I wouldn’t say it was dispassionate. These guys are human. They have feelings. They have concerns. I want to be there to help them with that. But obviously there’s only one net. And we have two real capable guys and they both want to play. They both understand that and they’re both high-character guys which I think helps a lot. There was no animosity between Marc or Matt, they understand what the other guy is going through because they’re both goaltenders. Goaltenders kind of understand. I didn’t change how I was dealing with either guy. I deal with them both individually and try to get each of them to be the best version of themselves. It’s not always great every day.”
The Penguins, you may have heard, have been at this for 50 years, meaning that in half a century, they’ve produced exactly three Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders. Two of them currently share a locker room. It’s a pretty good feeling in there when the best version of either can take you a long way.
Gene Collier: email@example.com and Twitter @genecollier.
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