Ron Cook: Fleury is the answer, but when?

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He left the Penguins' locker room and the dinginess of Mellon Arena yesterday and headed out into the bright noontime sun, wearing a flannel shirt, baggy low-slung blue jeans and a Pirates' ball cap turned backward, looking very much like a younger, smaller, frailer version of another fairly well-known, goofy-kid Pittsburgh sports figure.

Now if Marc-Andre Fleury can just have the same impact as Big Ben ...

It doesn't have to be a Stanley Cup, at least not this year. A top-eight finish in the Eastern Conference would do nicely, thank you, especially considering the Penguins haven't sniffed the playoffs since about the time Fleury was putting the pedal to the metal into puberty. Yes, it has been a while. Now, Fleury gets the chance to get the new NHL season started right when he's the man in goal against the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night at the old arena.

It's nice to think Fleury will be the man for the next 15 years.

That's why it was terrific yesterday to see Penguins coach Michel Therrien put an end to his mind games with Fleury, when he went ahead and named him as his opening-night starter. In some ways, it was a surprise announcement, because it came so early in the week and because of the mental pressure Therrien had been laying thick on Fleury. During the course of training camp, Fleury seemed to go from being the franchise's go-to goaltender to being Jocelyn Thibault's backup to being a struggling kid who lacked confidence, earned a public scolding from his boss, didn't appear capable of beating out somebody named Dany Sabourin and seemed headed back to the minors to being -- surprise, surprise -- The Guy again.

Truth is it had to be that way all along for the Penguins.

They will go only as far as Fleury takes them.

This season and beyond.

"We've got a lot of faith in this kid," Therrien was saying after practice. "We've got to show faith to this kid as long as he's performing."

There is that performance thing, isn't there?

Therrien made it clear midway through camp that he wasn't pleased with Fleury and that he expected much more from him. It's hard to say if that inspired Fleury or if it was the threat of starting another season in Wilkes-Barre. Something worked. Fleury didn't just play well in the final exhibition game at Buffalo Saturday night. Therrien said he has had 10 "solid" days of practice.

"You could tell he's focused," the coach said.

Fleury, for his part, doesn't seem quite sure what to make of Therrien or his tactics, but he clearly was thrilled at the way things went yesterday. He got his information in bits and pieces. From the media, he learned the Penguins were going with three goaltenders -- at least for now -- and that he wasn't making a return trip to the minors. "It's a relief. I'll sleep better at night, I guess," he said. Moments later, he was fetched into Therrien's office and found out the really good news -- that he was going to play against the Flyers. "I'm really happy," he said. "I'm probably more relaxed a little bit. I can just go out and play."

By this time, Therrien had made a sharp left turn and moved to Phase II of his Fleury treatment. Now, he was trying to ease the pressure on his young goaltender and massage his ego, just in case it had been bruised. It made some sense.

As much as Fleury has to play huge for the Penguins to be a playoff contender, he's going to need help. The team should score more goals, especially with Sidney Crosby a year wiser and Evgeni Malkin expected to join the lineup early in the season. But the defense still needs some serious tightening. The Penguins allowed 2,723 shots last season -- fourth-most in the NHL -- and had the worst goals-against average, 3.73.

"He's only 21," Therrien said of Fleury. "We always like for things to happen quickly. That's normal. For him, too. But we have to be patient with this kid."

Fleury doesn't have to pitch a shutout against the Flyers to save his job. Goaltenders sometimes take longer to develop because of the pressures they face.

But Fleury is not your typical young goaltender. For one thing, he was the first overall pick of the 2003 draft. For another, he played 50 games for the Penguins last season and 21 for them the season before that, 2003-04. He frequently showed signs of brilliance. Too often, though, he gave up bad goals or too many goals.

Twenty-one or not, it's time for a lot more consistency.

Time for Fleury to show he really is The Guy.

You know, the way Carolina's Cam Ward did in the spring when, at 22, he led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy.

"Not many guys that young can do it, but it's possible," Fleury said, bringing up Ward's name.

"I know I have lots of hockey left. But I don't want to be 26 before it starts getting good. I want to have an impact sooner than that."

It's nice to think it will happen by the time Fleury is 22.

His birthday is Nov. 28.



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