COLUMBUS, Ohio — If there was a time for Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to live up to his less-than-flattering playoff reputation of the past few years, it surely would have been early in Game 3 of the first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The series was tied going into the game Monday, and the Blue Jackets came out storming.
Fleury gave up two goals on three shots in the first 3:18.
“It would have been very easy for him to maybe lose some of the confidence after giving up two goals quickly, but he seems to be hanging in there,” Columbus center Mark Letestu, a former teammate of Fleury with the Penguins, said Tuesday.
Since helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009, Fleury has often been criticized for his postseason play. The Penguins won just one of four series in the ensuing three years.
Last season, he was pulled in favor of Tomas Vokoun in the first round against the New York Islanders.
Through three games against the Blue Jackets this spring, Fleury is 2-1, with not so much as a whisper that he could lose his place as the starter.
He is expected to be in net tonight for Game 4 at Nationwide Arena.
The comeback win in Game 3 was made possible in large part by Fleury keeping his cool and making what coach Dan Bylsma called “four great saves” in the second period.
Before that, Bylsma used his lone timeout after those two early goals by Columbus.
“We gave them some easy opportunities, and they capitalized on them in the first few minutes,” winger Lee Stempniak said. “From there, we called a timeout to regroup. We had a lot of hockey left. We asked [Fleury] to shut the door, and he did. He gave us a chance to win.”
The Blue Jackets noticed.
“He seemed to settle down after they called the time out just fine,” Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson said. “He did enough for them [Monday].”
Bylsma said he couldn’t see well enough from the bench to look into Fleury’s eyes or gauge his focus just after the timeout, but it became evident as the game moved along.
“That, you could see in his game — solid and strong,” Bylsma said. “We had pushed with 16 shots in the first [period], but he had to come up big for us and make those saves [in the second period].
“At that point, it’s 2-0 or 2-1, and it keeps us feeling good about where we’re at in the game.”
The Blue Jackets respect Fleury’s biggest accomplishment more than they count on him to revisit his postseason struggles.
“He’s won a Cup, so he’s obviously a world-class goaltender,” said Columbus winger Cam Atkinson, the only player to beat Fleury Monday after those two early goals.
Atkinson doesn’t want his teammates to be shy about testing Fleury.
“It’s just like any goalie — you’ve just got to pressure him and get in his kitchen, get pucks to the net,” he said. “We only got 20 shots [in Game 3]. I think we’ve got to get a lot more, crash on the rebounds and make it a hard night for him.”
It’s clear to Letestu that the Penguins are rallying around Fleury, who, in the past few postseasons, didn’t always have stellar defensive support.
“He seems to be hanging in there,” Letestu said. “You can tell the guys around him are going to battle for him. They’re blocking a lot of shots or limiting our Grade-A opportunities.
“But we’ve always known he’s a good goalie. He’s got a Stanley Cup. He’s proven he can win at this level. You can tell he’s a confident guy now. It’s going to take some good shots to beat him. We’ve expected that the whole way through.”
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.