In the five games so far between the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets in their first-round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has a unique distinction. He has been the Penguins' best player and their biggest goat.
Fortunately, for the Penguins, Fleury filled the former role Saturday night at the Consol Energy Center in a 3-1 Penguins win. Once again, he was their best player.
Fleury allowed a first-period goal, which gave Columbus a 1-0 lead, and then shut down the Blue Jackets for the final 47 minutes as the Penguins took a 3-2 advantage in the best-of-seven series. He faced 24 shots as the Penguins took the game to the Blue Jackets and fired 50 shots at Sergei Bobrovsky.
By playing so well, Fleury eased the worst fears of the Penguins and their fans -- another infamous Fleury postseason meltdown. In view of how he finished the previous game, a 4-3 Columbus win, and in view of how he has collapsed in past playoffs, such feelings were understandable.
Fleury's late collapse in Game 4 might always be attached to his legacy. First, he left the crease and misplayed a puck behind the net, enabling Columbus to tie the game with less than 30 seconds remaining. Next, he allowed the softest of possible goals in overtime as Columbus won to even the series.
So when he took the ice for Game 5, there was much anxiety over his performance. When Boone Jenner scored at 12:55 of the first period, that anxiety ramped up several notches. But Fleury stood strong the rest of the way. Chris Kunitz scored in the second period to tie the game and Jussi Jokinen put the Penguins ahead to stay 6:16 into the third period. The final goal was an empty netter by Kris Letang.
If there was a downer on the night, it was the failure to score -- once again -- of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby now has gone 10 playoff games and Malkin nine without a goal. The two stars, put on the same line by coach Dan Bylsma to start the game, were not non-factors. Crosby has six shots on goal and an assist. Malkin had two shots on goal, which were two more than he had in Game 4.
The Penguins are one win away from advancing to what figures to be a more formidable challenge against the winner of the Rangers-Flyers series. But that does not mean victory will come easily. The Blue Jackets have shown throughout the series that they will not go easily.
Game 6 will be Monday in Columbus. If necessary, Game 7 will be in Pittsburgh Wednesday.
There's no telling how this series will play out because history tells us there's no telling how Fleury will play in the games ahead.