Laughed out loud Thursday when ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose described Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as being under more pressure than anyone in the United States.
Melrose was kidding, right?
There's no arguing the Penguins will be the most scrutinized team in these Stanley Cup playoffs for as long as they last. You're always going to be closely watched if you have the best player in the world, which the Penguins do with Sidney Crosby. There's also no arguing Fleury is facing more pressure than anyone on the hockey club. That goes with his position, No. 1. The heat always is hottest on the goaltender. But it's also because Fleury hasn't played well the past four postseasons. All eyes were on him Wednesday night when the Penguins faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 at Consol Energy Center. Many, including Melrose, who put the Penguins on "upset alert" because of Fleury's recent history, watched to see if he would fail again.
After a rough start, he stopped the final 20 Columbus shots in a 4-3 win.
At least for one game, he stared down his demons.
"I'm so happy for him that he got the win," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "It was good to see the smile back on his face. It had been a long time. Man, people were ready to run him out of town, weren't they?"
It seems like yesterday. Fleury, after making 79 consecutive postseason starts, was benched for Tomas Vokoun for Game 5 of the first-round series last spring against the New York Islanders. It was a brutal blow to Fleury's ego. He never got another start even though the Penguins made it to the Eastern Conference final. It was the fourth consecutive playoffs that his save percentage didn't reach .900, the second year in a row that his goals-against average was more than 3.50.
"I felt terrible that it all came down on his shoulders," Niskanen said. "Goals-against are a team statistic. I know I had something to do with it. We all did. We didn't play well in front of him."
The Penguins weren't all that great in front of Fleury Wednesday. Jack Johnson scored the first Columbus goal just 6:20 in when he was left alone for what seemed like hours in front of the net. Derek MacKenzie scored the third short-handed early in the second period on a breakaway after a horrible giveaway by defenseman Kris Letang.
At that point, the Blue Jackets had scored on their second, 12th and 14th shots to take a 3-1 lead. The big home crowd was tense, uneasy. It was hard to predict how Fleury would react. He was terrific in the regular season, winning 39 games and making a strong case as the Penguins' MVP. But he has always been good in the regular season. This was a much bigger moment, a much bigger stage with much brighter lights.
"There was no panic button," Niskanen said. "There was no pouting. There was nothing negative at all. He was just ... sharp."
Fleury admitted to feeling nerves before the puck dropped. "I did, yeah." He said it was fun to get back in goal for a playoff game but called it "stressful." He admitted to having to take a deep breath after MacKenzie's goal. "I tried to relax and stay calm and stay with it. Stop the next one and go from there. The more shots that came, the more comfortable I felt."
Fleury stopped Matt Calvert on a breakaway after Calvert blew by defenseman Olli Maatta in the final minute of the second period when it was 3-3. "They had already scored on a breakaway," Fleury said. "I tried to make sure I stopped one of them."
That save brought the "Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!" chants from the crowd. So did his outstanding save on Ryan Murray with a minute to go. It must have sounded like sweet, sweet music to Fleury. "It was a great feeling to get the win at the end," he said.
Fleury has been around a long time, 10 NHL seasons. He has more postseason wins (46) than any goaltender in these playoffs. His name is on the Stanley Cup because of his superb work in the 2009 playoffs.
You might guess Fleury isn't going to get carried away with one win. He certainly isn't taking anything for granted. He knows how quickly things can change for him and the Penguins. A year ago in that Islanders series, he pitched a 5-0 shutout in Game 1 and looked great. But the high didn't last long. He faced 42 shots in Game 2 and lost, 4-3, after the Penguins blew a 3-1 lead. He gave up a touchdown in a 6-4 loss in Game 4 and was done for the season as the team's go-to goaltender.
Fleury might have turned back those demons Wednesday night, but he knows they'll be back Saturday to take another crack at him in Game 2.
"One game at a time. ... One shot at a time," he said, quietly.
Fleury allowed himself a tired smile. He was right, it had been a stressful night. More such nights are ahead, many more, he is hoping. His smile was a combination of joy, exhaustion and relief. But mostly relief.
"It's nice to be up, 1-0, I can tell you that," Fleury said.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.