On the Penguins: Fleury's poor play to start the season could lead to more time for Johnson


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Coach Dan Bylsma was uncharacteristically candid about -- and critical of -- the work of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the minutes following a 4-3 loss to Toronto Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.

His team had outshot the Maple Leafs, 25-14, and had held them, by Bylsma's reckoning, to about eight scoring chances.

That wasn't enough to generate a victory, however, and even though he did not specify a goal for which he held Fleury accountable, Bylsma said pointedly that, "there's a time when [Fleury] has got to come up with the save."

That was a completely reasonable assessment, because not only should an NHL goaltender be counted on to consistently make run-of-the-mill stops and rarely, if ever, leak in a bad one, he should be expected to occasionally bail out his teammates by rejecting a shot that, by rights, should make it to the back of the net.

Especially a goaltender with Fleury's talent level and salary.

Bylsma delivered an even more blunt message the following day, when he announced that backup Brent Johnson would start against the New York Islanders Friday night at Consol Energy Center, and declined to commit to using Fleury Saturday in Philadelphia.

It's pretty tough to misinterpret the message Bylsma was delivering. Or to disagree with it.

Now, there are a few things that need to be clear when evaluating the Penguins' goaltending.

The most important is that, barring injuries, Fleury, not Johnson, is the guy with whom this team ultimately will sink or swim.

Johnson is an outstanding partner for Fleury, an even-keeled sort who accepts the role he is given and is well-liked and respected by his co-workers, presumably because he is a good team guy who has a history of playing well when given the opportunity.

It's no accident, though, that he is the backup and is earning $600,000 per season on a two-year contract, while Fleury is the No. 1 and making $5 million a year for seven seasons, and it's not because Johnson lost a coin toss.

Johnson is an invaluable member of the Penguins' supporting cast and almost certainly could handle the goaltending duties for more than a couple of games if circumstances, like an injury to Fleury, compelled him to do so. He's a true pro, and plays the part.

Fleury, however, is the one who has helped to lead his team to a championship, and who has exceptional potential that is, in large part, still untapped.

Whether he'll ever develop into the consistently dominant force he has the ability to be remains to be seen, but it would be folly -- to put it politely -- to even think about giving up on him now. And, it has to be pointed out, there's zero indication that management has considered any such thing.

Nonetheless -- and even though Fleury will be the one Bylsma and his teammates will look to when the games matter most -- the reality is that the Penguins don't have the luxury of continuing to sputter the way they did during the first week of the season, and lackluster goaltending was a big part of that.

That doesn't mean Johnson, who was solid in his first start of the season last Monday in New Jersey, should be given the top job, even on an interim basis.

However, it is in the best interest of the team -- and perhaps even of Fleury's future -- that in the short term, both goalies be given work, and that the one who performs best be given the majority of starts over the next few weeks.

The Penguins don't want to get into a position where they're starting to play must-win games in mid-March, and accumulating points now is the way to avoid that. If they have to do it on the strength of their No. 2 goalie, so be it.

BROTHER VS. BROTHER

A shoulder injury will prevent defenseman Zbynek Michalek from dressing when Ottawa visits Consol Energy Center Monday, which means he'll miss out on his first opportunity to compete against his younger brother, Milan, since both ended up in the Eastern Conference.

They did, however, cross paths fairly often when Zbynek was playing for Phoenix and Milan was with San Jose.

"We played against each other a lot," Zbynek said. "It used to be fun."

Just to be clear, it wasn't only that their teams faced each other; the brothers went head-to-head a lot of the time.

"My coach tried to line me up against him most of the time," Zbynek said. "He's a left wing and I'm a right [defenseman], so we were playing against each other. Those games were always fun to be part of, and something to remember."

Odds are that the Michaleks will make a few memories when the Penguins and Senators collide in coming seasons, too. They'll probably be pleasant ones, as well, because Zbynek says that he never really targeted Milan for special abuse, the way some guys would when facing a sibling.

"I'm always real nice to him," Zbynek said. "I'm the older brother, so I have to take care of him, watch over him a little bit."


For more hockey, read Penguins Plus: Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson . Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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