Conklin has been great, but it's Fleury's time now

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This has very little to do with Ty Conklin fishing four pucks out of his net in Atlanta Wednesday night or the fact he had lost five of his seven previous decisions before playing great again last night in the 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes. The man deserves all the credit in the world for saving the Penguins' season after Marc-Andre Fleury's ankle injury. Not only did the team start to roll when Conklin came up from the minor leagues and took over as goaltender, management didn't have to give up anything in a trade to replace Fleury.

The organization always will be indebted to him for getting it through a major crisis.

Still, the time has just about come for Fleury to move back into the lineup. Out since Dec. 6, he practiced with the team for the first time Friday and came through the work just fine. Although he won't play in the game at New Jersey tomorrow night, he could get a start in the Penguins' four-game home stand that begins Thursday night with a game against the New York Islanders.

It can't come soon enough for Fleury. "I've missed hockey so much," he said last week.

It also can't come soon enough for the Penguins. He is a better goaltender than Conklin. He has to be the Penguins' guy, for the rest of this season and for seasons to come.

Surprisingly, a lot of people around here don't seem to get that. For more than a month, they have been fretting about what Penguins coach Michel Therrien should do when Fleury comes back. More than a few actually have suggested the team trade Fleury and go with Conklin. There is a word to describe those people -- foolish.

Fleury is 23, the No. 1 player picked in the 2003 draft. He won 40 games last season. He might have been the Penguins' best player in their playoff series loss to the Ottawa Senators. He gives them their best chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Conklin will be 32 next month and is a career journeyman. Although he went on the run of his life -- he won his first nine starts after taking over for Dany Sabourin, who struggled as Fleury's replacement -- there's no indication he'll be able to maintain anything even close to that high level of play.

That's why Fleury's return is coming at just the right time. With Sidney Crosby out, the games are going to come down to how many goals the Penguins give up, not how many they score. Fleury should be able to give the team a huge lift.

Fleury is buoyed by the fact that the biggest games are ahead. He knows he has a chance to salvage what has been a lost season. He struggled in the early games and was benched in favor of Sabourin on more than one occasion. Just when he started playing well -- he won four consecutive games, allowing zero, one, one and two goals -- his ankle was injured in a game at Calgary.

Fleury never imagined eight-plus weeks could be such a long time.

"It's hard because you're away from the guys," he said. "You get here early and you leave early. You hardly see anyone. Then, you have to watch the games on TV. ...

"All you can do is work out and try to stay in the best shape you can. And you have to keep your mind busy. You can't be thinking all the time about what you're missing."

Thank goodness for Fleury's collection of "Lost" episodes.

"I like that show," he said, grinning.

There won't be much TV-watching time in Fleury's future as long as he stays healthy. Carrying the Penguins down the stretch and into the playoffs should keep him plenty occupied.

If that's not enough motivation, Fleury has more because he's playing for a contract. He'll be a restricted free agent after this season, although the Penguins retain his rights for the next two seasons and can match any offer he receives. He'll also be eligible for salary arbitration. He knows the better he plays in the next few months, the more he'll make in his next deal.

"I'm not thinking about that so much right now," Fleury said. "All I want to do is start playing again, win some games and get to the playoffs."

Fleury is the right man for the job.

Conklin got the Penguins to this point, thank you very much.

Now, it's Fleury's turn.




Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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