Penguins' Fleury has his 'best season'
ATLANTA -- It is not about the statistics.
Oh, there's nothing wrong with them -- most are outstanding, actually -- but assessing Marc-Andre Fleury's season, and his value to the Penguins, is not a paint-by-numbers project.
Defenseman Brooks Opik, for one, believes it would be wrong to focus solely on the 36-20-5 record, the 2.32 goals-against average or the .918 save percentage that Fleury will take into the Penguins' regular-season finale against Atlanta at 3:08 today at Philips Arena. Better, he said, to look at the impact maturity and experience have had on Fleury's work, how they have helped to exorcise some of the extreme highs and lows from his game.
"This is, by far, the best season," Orpik said. "I don't know if the numbers are his best, but, from a consistency standpoint ... that's the hardest thing for any player to achieve in this league. Even back to his first year, he probably had great games his first year, but he also had a lot of bad games."
Game: Penguins at Atlanta Thrashers, 3:08 p.m. today, Philips Arena.
TV, radio, Internet: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.
Pitching: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ondrej Pavelec for Thrashers.
Penguins: Have all-time record of 14-5-2 at Philips Arena. ... RW Alex Kovalev has two goals in 19 games since being acquired from Ottawa. ... Have league-high 1,087 hits on road.
Thrashers: Are 17-16-7 at home, including 4-2 loss to Penguins Nov. 13. ... D Dustin Byfuglien, with six winning goals, is only Thrasher with more than two. ... Allowing 3.17 goals per game, second most in NHL.
Of note: Atlanta has given up two goals in less than two minutes 27 times this season.
Mind you, Fleury has had a few of those this season, but nearly all were confined to the early weeks. He was 1-6 Nov. 5 and had that record mostly on merit.
"A rough start," Fleury said, smiling. "Then, it went all right the rest of the season."
Yeah, kind of.
Well enough that his teammates believe he is the Penguins' most valuable player, and the primary reason they were able to survive injuries that knocked the likes of Orpik, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, among others, out of the lineup for extended stretches.
That is the reason he has turned up in conversations about contenders for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the NHL player deemed to be most valuable to his team, and the Vezina, which is awarded to the league's top goalie. Fleury isn't going to win either, but simply making it onto the list of viable candidates speaks to the quality of his work.
Although Fleury's save percentage is flirting with his career-high, his degree of difficulty is not. His remarkable athleticism, flexibility and reflexes have allowed him to make some breathtaking saves since breaking into the NHL in 2003.
He does not do that as often anymore, and that might be the most compelling evidence of how his game has changed. Fleury is not authoring as many spectacular stops as he once did because it is not necessary anymore. He has learned that positioning, poise and patience can defuse dangerous situations without requiring an extraordinary effort.
"It seems easier for him," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "He doesn't have to make that super save, that highlight save, all the time. He's more solid, he's more relaxed."
All of which helps to purge the ups and downs that Fleury, like so many young goaltenders, went through earlier in his career.
"[Now] maybe if you have a bad game, it's not a real bad game," Orpik said. "It's just that it's not a great game."
The true measure of greatness, of course, comes in the playoffs, and there was a time when Fleury's reputation for producing in high-stakes games was, to put it charitably, undistinguished.
That began to change when he led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and was inexorably altered 12 months later, when they won the Cup and Fleury punctuated their Game 7 victory in Detroit by denying Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom on a rebound in the waning seconds of regulation.
"Before we went to the final, before we went to the Cup, [Fleury] had the reputation of a goalie who wouldn't do great in tough situations," forward Max Talbot said. "And he proved everybody wrong. He proved he was a great goalie under pressure."
Fleury, like a lot of his teammates, had a series to forget when Montreal upset the Penguins in the second round last spring. The postseason that will begin in a few days will offer a chance for redemption, but it's not as if Fleury has to prove anything to his teammates.
"I don't think so," Orpik said. "He's made a pretty good statement this year."
Fleury concedes that losing to Montreal stung, but said it did not leave a permanent mark on his psyche.
"I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody," he said. "I just want to go and play, have fun and win."
First Published April 10, 2011 12:00 am