Here's one way to gauge the value of a player:
Ask a couple of teammates where the club would be without him.
"That's a tough question," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said Monday of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. "He's been playing great. He's a big part of it."
That would be a big part of the Penguins' run to 44 points in 35 games, among the best in the NHL, despite injuries galore.
Every defenseman who started the season on the major league roster, among others, has missed least one game. And even though center Evgeni Malkin is in contention for the league points championship and winger James Neal is vying for the goal title, the Penguins would hate an "It's a Wonderful Life" version of themselves without their franchise goalie.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Carolina Hurricanes, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Cam Ward for Hurricanes.
- Penguins: Have split two games vs. Hurricanes, both on road. ... Evgeni Malkin (6 goals, 10 assists) and James Neal (6 goals, 3 assists) have seven-game points streaks. ... Malkin has six goals, 20 points in 18 career games vs. Carolina.
- Hurricanes: Are 4-9-4 on road. ... Are 3-2-1 when playing on second night in row. ... Their 9.9 penalty minutes per game was among lowest in NHL before Monday games.
- Hidden stat: In 20 meetings between brothers, Jordan Staal of Penguins has four goals, nine points, is plus-7; Eric Staal of Carolina has nine goals, 17 points, is plus-12.
"[We wouldn't be] as high as we'd want to be," winger Chris Kunitz said. "He's been our best player. Obviously, [Malkin] has played really great of late and carried us offensively. But defensively, as a whole, we're not where we want to be, and [Fleury] has kept us in or won us a lot of games so far this year."
Fleury has 18 of the team's 20 wins to ranks second in the NHL in that category, including two shutouts, going into the home game tonight against Carolina. He is expected to start against the Hurricanes. His .917 save percentage and 2.25 goals-against average do not rank in the top 10, but he has topped that save percentage in a season just twice and never finished with a goals-against average lower than 2.32.
Fleury said he hasn't contemplated his role in the face of a long injury list that also includes the Penguins' best player, center and captain Sidney Crosby.
"I don't really think about it that way or that much," Fleury said. "It doesn't matter who's playing or who's not. My job is still the same -- to stop pucks."
It's something he began doing in the NHL at age 18, a few months after the Penguins made him the first overall pick in the 2004 draft. He is 202 wins into his career despite just turning 27 last month.
Fleury has said many times that the personal statistic that wows him most is a 40-win season. He has one, going 40-16-9 in 2006-07, and is in good position to do it again.
Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche recently noted that, going by age, Fleury is entering his prime.
His teammates watch him play and wonder if he isn't there already, considering his skill and the fact that he's already five games away from playing in his 400th game.
"Goaltenders tend to understand the game a little more as they get a little more mature and make better decisions, and you see that with him," Dupuis said.
The early start to his career, while rocky at times and with trips back to the minor leagues for financial reasons, apparently is paying off.
"Most goalies don't get that chance [to play] at 18, 19," Kunitz said. "And then there's winning the  Stanley Cup. So I wouldn't say he's just coming into his own. He's got the maturity, but also just a love of the game and his ability to work on it."
"Maturity" can be fluid.
Monday in the team shootout competition that often ends the formal part of practice, Fleury was at his silly best -- perhaps egged on by the packed stands at Southpointe. It's a routine his teammates have seen many times, however, including pushups and pirouettes as shooters close in on him.
Sometimes, he pulls it off; other times it backfires.
"You can see how much fun he has in the shootouts," Kunitz said. "A guy who hasn't been in the league since he was 18, 19 maybe wouldn't try some of those things. But he just has an enjoyment of the game."
Not to the point being lackadaisical in games, though, because Fleury knows the unknown awaits every start.
Last week, for example, he withstood an onslaught of 19 third-period shots in an 3-2 win against Chicago. Two nights later, Winnipeg had 19 shots -- but many other scoring chances -- in the Penguins' 4-1 win.
"Every night, it's a different game," Fleury said. "You feel different. Your head feels different sometimes. You've got to be able to find ways to be constant. I think that was something that was harder when I came in [the NHL].
"I've been improving. I think I've been through a lot of experiences since I came in at an early age, and I think that's not something you can practice. You've got to go through it. I'm pretty fortunate I was young and able to come in and get that experience early."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published December 27, 2011 5:00 AM