Cook: Johnson playing well, but Fleury still No. 1 for Penguins

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Showed up at the Consol Energy Center Monday night prepared to take Penguins coach Dan Bylsma to task for his shabby treatment of franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Then, Brent Johnson went out and played another really strong game.

So much for the best-laid plans.

Johnson is making Bylsma look a lot smarter than he deserves. I hate it that Bylsma buried Fleury on the bench for the third consecutive game over four nights Monday night and the fourth time in five games. But how can you gripe too much after the way Johnson has played?

I mean, really?

It's easy to overlook Johnson's performance in a game when the Penguins scored a flurry -- sorry, I couldn't help myself -- of goals against the Ottawa Senators in a 5-2 victory. But he was more than solid, turning away 32 of 34 shots. His best play came when he stopped Mike Fisher on a short-handed breakaway midway through the third period, poke-checking the puck off Fisher's stick when a goal would have pulled the Senators back in the game. It was a wonderful effort.

Johnson, who mostly has been a little-used NHL backup since he started 38 games for the St. Louis Blues in the 2002-03 season, is 4-0 as the Penguins' starter this season. But that's not the best part. He has allowed one, two, one and two goals. That's terrific.

"I feel sharp right now," Johnson said. Asked when the most recent time was that he started three games in a row, he said, "It's been a while. I can't really tell you."

Bylsma praised Johnson for having some of the best numbers in the NHL. "Right now, you've got a guy who's winning hockey games for us and making big saves."

I'm thinking Bylsma will give Johnson another start when the Penguins play Thursday night in Nashville, Tenn., although he wouldn't confirm that, saying with a smirk, "I'm enjoying the victory. I'm not even close to going there right now."

It's hard to argue with staying with the hot goaltender.

"You can't take Johnny out right now," said Fleury, of all people. "He's playing great and the team is winning."

Still, I can't help but think that Bylsma is doing Fleury wrong. Even if Fleury gets the start against Nashville, it will be eight days between games for him. He deserves better than that. He hasn't been nearly as bad as his 0-3 record and .853 save percentage say he is. The only really awful goal he allowed came Oct. 9 when he was beaten by Montreal's Scott Gomez for the game-winner late in the Canadiens' 3-2 victory.

It bothers me that Bylsma called Fleury out publicly after Fleury fished out four pucks from his net in his most recent start, a 4-3 loss Wednesday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs. None of the goals was blatantly bad, but Bylsma appeared irritated that they came on just 14 shots, only about eight of which he thought were scoring chances. "There's a time when [Fleury] has got to come up with the save," he said.

It's one thing to criticize a player like that, even a franchise goaltender, who still is 25, has led the team to one Stanley Cup championship and another Stanley Cup final and is in the third year of a seven-year, $35 million contract. But it's another thing not to give that player a chance to get back in the lineup to make things right.

I repeat: Fleury deserves better.

The Penguins are going to need him to be at the top of his game to be at the top of theirs.

Not that Fleury will complain. He is too much of a team man for that. All he would say Monday night, after walking across the Penguins' locker room to congratulate Johnson, was, "I think I've had enough time to get over the rough start. I'd like to get back in there. Anybody would feel that way."

It helps that Fleury and Johnson are the best of friends. This could be an uncomfortable situation if there were friction between them. It also could be rough if Johnson started lobbying for the starting job. That doesn't appear likely to happen.

"He is the face of goaltending here," Johnson said of Fleury. "Everybody knows that. It's his job.

"I'm grateful to get the chance to play a few games and get a few Ws for the team, but everybody in this dressing room knows it's Flower's team. He's the goalie who will be there down the stretch for us."

The stretch?

Now, you know Bylsma wasn't ready to go there.

"Marc-Andre Fleury, as you mentioned, is our franchise goaltender and our No. 1 guy," he said. "He'll get to [be] that again."

The sooner the better, I say.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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