Fleury will lead Penguins into conference final

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One minute, the Penguins were preparing to play the Boston Bruins in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. All the New Jersey Devils had to do was hold on to a late 3-2 lead at home Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. The next minute, the Penguins found out they were off to D.C. to play the Washington Capitals in the second round. The great Martin Brodeur had to fish two pucks out of the Jersey net in the final 80 seconds and the Devils lost a 4-3 stunner.

Who would have thought Brodeur and bum would be in the same sentence?

"Oh, I don't blame him," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was saying after practice yesterday at Mellon Arena. "I know everyone else is, but I always stick up for the other goalies."

It's a small fraternity, you know?

Surely, Brodeur appreciates the support.

"Those guys have a tough job," Penguins winger Max Talbot said, nodding his head toward Fleury. "When the team wins, it's all about the guys scoring the goals. But if the team loses, it's all about the goaltender."

That pressure is enormous. That's why the Penguins think -- rightfully so -- that they have a big edge over the Capitals in what should be a fabulous series starting tomorrow in Washington. They have Fleury, who carried them to the Cup final last season and was their best player in their first-round series win against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals have Russian rookie Simeon Varlamov, who wasn't able to buy a beer legally in this country until he turned 21 Monday. He has played in only 12 NHL games and has never seen the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"I think you can [rattle a young goaltender]," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "The kid played pretty well in the first round, but he probably wasn't challenged the way we're going to challenge him."

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau turned to Varlamov in that first-round series against the New York Rangers almost out of desperation after veteran Jose Theodore continued to play poorly in a 4-3 loss in Game 1. The Capitals lost Game 2, 1-0, but Varlamov played well enough for Boudreau to stay with him. He responded by winning four of the next five games, allowing a total of six goals.

"I was surprised," Boudreau admitted yesterday.

The big shock will come if Varlamov continues to stand on his head -- forgive me, I've always wanted to write that just one time -- against the Penguins. The Rangers didn't have a Crosby or a Malkin. They scored 54 fewer goals than the Penguins during the season.

"Our plan isn't any different than it is against a lot of goaltenders," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We need to get second chances and have extended periods in the offensive end and not make it easy on him by getting second opportunities and having people crashing the net and getting loose pucks. That's something he didn't see a lot of in the last series."

I like the way Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi put it: "If [Varlamov] has a bad night early or we can light him up one night, maybe he'll realize where he's at and we'll be able to get in his head a little."

That's the Penguins' best path to Round 3.

Certainly, the goaltending edge Fleury gives them should be enough to carry them past the Capitals.

It's fair to say Fleury won at least two games against the Flyers. His spectacular toe save to rob Jeff Carter of a goal that would have given Philadelphia a 3-1 lead with 8Â 1/2 minutes left in Game 2 enabled the Penguins to win, 3-2, in overtime. Then, there was his amazing 45-save night in a 3-1 win in Game 4.

"It's comforting knowing he's back there for us," Talbot said.

"He makes even the tough saves look easy because he always makes the right read and always is in the right spot," Scuderi said. "He makes the little correct decisions that are so important every single time."

It's hard to imagine the Capitals having so much faith in Varlamov. Sure, they liked how he handled the pressure of Round 1, especially in the final three, tense elimination games when they won 4-0, 5-3 and 2-1. But that was against the offensively challenged Rangers.

"I don't know [what Varlamov is thinking], he's so quiet," Boudreau said.

"He's got a good poker face, but I'm sure his stomach is turning. But he seems very confident."

Is it just me or does that seem like a rather lukewarm endorsement?

Make it the Penguins in six games.

Crosby and Malkin will torment Varlamov, but Fleury will be the best player on the ice again.

Fleury will be the difference.


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


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