Fleury's goaltending key to Penguins' chances against Detroit tonight
Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury waves to fans outside of Mellon Arena as he leaves after practice yesterday.
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In a world where the puck is called the biscuit and an arena is known as the barn, Chris Kunitz dipped into hockey's special vocabulary to describe Marc-Andre Fleury's ability to make impossible saves through the course of a game.
"He stood on his head and gave us a chance to be here," Kunitz said.
It's a quaint expression, but can the Penguins' nimble goalie really stand on his noggin?
"I tried, but it hurts the neck, so I don't do that anymore," he said, with a smile that is part disarming, part playful and part the disguise of an assassin.
• Matchup: Penguins at Detroit Red Wings, 8:15 p.m. today, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit.
• Internet: Live game blog at Empty Netters
• TV, radio: WPXI, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Series: Tied, 2-2.
• Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Chris Osgood for Red Wings.
• Penguins: Averaging 3.5 goals on road but have just 2 goals in 2 games at Detroit. ... C Evgeni Malkin leads series in points (7) and shots (18). ... D Kris Letang has 1 goal, 3 assists in series.
• Red Wings: Allow just 1.6 goals against per game at home. ... Had gone 41 playoff games without yielding short-handed goal before Thursday. ... D Brad Stuart has 9 goals in 23 career games (playoff and regular season) vs. Penguins.
• Hidden stat: Both games in Detroit have ended 3-1; both games at Mellon Arena have ended 4-2.
In the public prints and over the airwaves, Fleury was singled out as having been badly outplayed in two losses to the Detroit Red Wings. That comes with the territory in a championship round. But he picked himself up with two wins, earning honors as the No. 1 star in the series-tying Game 4.
"You need your goalie to be at his best, and Marc's provided that for us," Sidney Crosby said.
The stars have aligned in this Stanley Cup final. Fleury, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were named the three stars in a 4-2 win against Detroit Thursday night. A giant banner showcasing that triumvirate happens to be attached to the steel beams of the new building going up across the street from Mellon Arena.
Nothing has been decided yet. The Cup is only half full for each team. But for as long as skaters have competed on the ice, this truth remains -- the goaltender likely will be the determining factor in which team takes two of the final three games.
The spotlight always follows the man in the mask, dressed in all that armor, positioned at that spot on the ice marked with blue paint, guarding a four-by-six-foot net. Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings already has his name on the Cup. The Penguins drafted Fleury in 2003 to lead them to the promised land, and questions about his credentials will persist until he wins a championship.
"You go back to Mario [Lemieux]," said goalie coach Gilles Meloche. "No matter how great he was, he didn't get full recognition until he won the Cup."
"For a goalie, every game is do or die. If you have a bad night or an average night, it's not going to be good enough to win a playoff series," Meloche added. "He wasn't happy with his stats against the [Washington] Capitals. But it's about wins, not stats. You have to make the right save at the right time to pick up your team, and he's been doing that."
In French, Fleury's name translates into Flower. Flower Power is not making every save but is making the key one against a key player at a key moment.
"He knows he has to play well for this team to win," said Ed Johnston, senior adviser with the Penguins and the last goalie to play every minute of every game for an entire season.
This is the kind of stage the Penguins had in mind when they traded up to make Fleury the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. (The other No. 1 overall picks in franchise history are Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.)
He won his first NHL game as an 18-year-old against the Red Wings. But despite his cat-quick reflexes and Gumby-like flexibility, he was sent back to juniors and spent some time in the minors to refine his game.
"He fell into some bad habits," said hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, a former Penguins assistant coach who has seen Fleury blossom from his days in junior hockey. "Rather than relying on his quickness and athleticism all the time, he's now relying on fundamentals. But, remember, the Penguins didn't have a goalie coach when he first came into the league. Now, he's controlling rebounds a lot better. He's taller in the net."
There was plenty of criticism after Fleury had some pucks bounce off him for goals in the two losses in Detroit. In addition, he was beaten by Detroit's young guns who spent most of the year competing against the likes of the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
But confidence in Fleury never wavered in the room that matters most -- the Penguins' inner sanctum.
"He's one of the main guys on our team," said coach Dan Bylsma.
Just go back to the first round when Fleury stole a game or two with spectacular efforts that frustrated the Philadelphia Flyers.
"We just couldn't beat Fleury," center Mike Richards said.
Before they can lift the Cup, the Penguins must win at least one game in Detroit, where the Red Wings are 10-1 in these playoffs.
Still, it was in Game 5 in Detroit a year ago that Fleury stopped 55 of 58 shots in a triple-overtime win. And it's easy to forget that at age 24, Fleury is already playing in his ninth NHL playoff round.
"You can't buy experience. The longer you play those big games, the more the game slows down for you. It's starting to slow down for him," Meloche said. "And you know what? Marc-Andre is a dream to work with. Every day, we look at video. We talk on ice. He takes extra shots. He absorbs everything."
For his part, Fleury copes with the doubters and naysayers by ignoring them. He doesn't read the papers or watch TV.
"I play for my team. I don't worry about what's written or said," Fleury said.
It is said that goalies are a different breed, but they almost have to be to stand up to sniper slap shots or peek through screens or keep battling during the scrums in the crease.
Some goalies deflect pressure with a scowl or a stone face. Fleury flashes his pearly whites through that impish smile of his.
"I just enjoy playing hockey, I guess," Fleury said.
Two more wins and he'll have an entire Cup-hungry city standing on its head.
First Published June 6, 2009 12:00 am