Fleury blossoms in series, chases playoff demons

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OTTAWA -- A Flower in spring blooms here.

Perhaps one playoff series isn't enough to herald that his personal postseason demons are gone.

Perhaps five goals allowed in four consecutive victories against a team beaten up physically and psychologically isn't a large enough sampling of evidence to declare him a fully budded star.

Yet for Marc-Andre Fleury, for a goaltender with too much cumbersome playoff history packed into the back end of his 23 years, this was indeed a triumph to savor and, as he giddily warbles after some saves, let out a yell.

"I don't see them as much as ghosts, but as experience I got through all those years," the Penguins' lanky goalie said late last night, after he made 21 saves and made the Senators go away in a four-game sweep that ended with a 3-1 victory at Scotiabank Place.

This was the same venue and the same playoff round where Fleury and the Penguins compiled a 1-4 record in an Eastern Conference quarterfinals exit 362 days ago. What a difference a year makes: 238 minutes, 2 seconds on the ice, 121 shots, 5 goals, his first postseason shutout, a .955 save percentage, a miniscule goals-against average of 1.25.

Take that, 2003 World Junior Championship loss in the finals to the United States.

So there, American Hockey League playoff yankings in 2004, '05 and '06 all by a Wilkes-Barre coach named ... Michel Therrien.

Concluded Fleury, "It's good to be through those things and use it for today."

"Ahh, Fleury was great," said Maxime Talbot, a friend, teammate and fellow French Canadian. "Fleury saved us a couple of times at the end of the game. My favorite? Ahh, there were so many. It's great to see."

"They were playing for their lives, playing for their season," defenseman Ryan Whitney added of the Senators.

True, the Senators threw Daniel Alfredsson back from sickbed at him, and then the reunited Alfredsson-Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley line at him, and seemingly 19,954 throats chanting Fluuurreeee at him at the very instant Antoine Vermette appeared to kick in a goal late in the second period. Still, nothing could cause him to wilt. The 6-foot-2 kid stood tall in the Penguins net.

"He's been playing like that the past month, two months," Whitney said.

"Since I've joined this team and he returned from [high ankle sprain] injury, he was strong for this team," said Marian Hossa, the former Senator turned Penguin. "He hasn't missed a beat. There were a few saves [in Game 4] that were unbelievable. You need great goaltending in the playoffs, and he was great for us."

There were 26 shots in a Game 1 shutout, something he never collected in juniors, for Team Canada in two World Juniors competitions, in 11 Wilkes-Barre playoff games, in his five games against Ottawa last spring.

There were 30 shots and a three-goal flourish in Game 2, causing the Senators to firmly believe they had solved the kid. Then he stoned them the final 11 minutes of Friday's game in Mellon Arena, and Ottawa potted only two more the last 131 minutes of this short series.

What a difference 362 days make.

"He's more patient," Talbot said. "He's calm. He's having fun. The Flower is all about having fun, being the guy in the net, going 'Woo Woo' after every save."

Goaltending coach Gilles Meloche deflects credit back to Fleury, who would probably throw out a leg pad and knock it away, anyway.

"He's worked hard," Meloche said outside a celebratory locker room. The differences in Fleury? "First of all, it's experience. Last year, I don't think the series was bad for him," with a 3.76 goals-against average against an eventual Stanley Cup finalist and three of the playoffs' top scorers in Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley.

Meloche picked up the tale: "They had the better team last year. And right now, he's at the top of his game. He's confident. He's keeping it simple and he's making the big saves."

Let's hear a Woo Woo.

"He can do whatever he wants," Meloche said, pausing to grin, "as long as he stops the puck."



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