Penguins' Fleury savors all-star spot
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Not everyone gets excited about playing in an NHL All-Star Game.
Sure, it is an honor, but some guys would prefer to have a few days off so they could rest for what remains of the season, ideally, on a beach where the only ice would be found in tall glasses.
And, it is easy to understand how that's more appealing than devoting a weekend to signing autographs, mingling with league sponsors and participating in a game of absolutely no consequence.
Some players don't see it that way, though.
Witness, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
"I always loved to watch the skills competition and the game when I was a kid," he said. "And when I made it to the NHL, I said, 'One day, I want to go.' "
That day is here.
Although Fleury won't know until tonight which team he will play for -- all-star captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Eric Staal will select the two squads in classic pickup game style -- simply being selected to take part in the game, which will be played Sunday in Raleigh, N.C., allows him to cross something off his professional to-do list.
Fleury is one of four Penguins picked for the game in fan-voting -- defenseman Kris Letang and centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the others, although the latter two will miss the event because of injuries -- but almost surely would have been selected by the NHL's hockey operations department if the public hadn't chosen him.
After a terrible start, in which he lost six of his first seven decisions, Fleury has been outstanding, going 22-5-2 and climbing into the top five in the league in save percentage (.925) and goals-against average (2.19) after a 1-0 victory Tuesday against the New York Islanders.
Fleury has elevated his game to some dizzying heights at various points in his career, but never has he played as well for as long as he has since mid-November.
"It's been 2 1/2 months now when I would break down game after game, and there's not a bad game in there," goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said.
By early November, a significant segment of the Penguins' fan base was demanding that Fleury be traded. A few months from now, if he continues to perform the way he has lately, those same people might be collecting money to erect a statue of him.
A stunning turnaround, to be sure, but one Meloche said has a pretty simple explanation.
"He worked hard at it," he said. "Give him credit. He stayed positive. We know he has enough talent to do what he's doing now. He's just applying it, day in and day out."
If precedent is any indication, Fleury can expect to give up three or four or five goals Sunday because there generally is no hitting and even less defense in All-Star games.
Fleury acknowledged with a smile and a shrug the likelihood of having a GAA that looks more like the GNP, and it is unlikely anything that happens Sunday will have a meaningful effect on him. He has been too confident, too fundamentally sound, to fret about a game in which goals can come by the dozen.
If there is any all-star-related concern, it is that Fleury's rhythm could be disrupted by going a week between meaningful games.
A year ago, he was the No. 3 goalie for Canada at the Olympics, and, while Fleury returned from Vancouver with a gold medal, he didn't bring his "A" game back with him.
Fleury refused to blame the Games for his often lackluster play in the stretch drive and playoffs -- "It was an amazing experience," he said. "It's not like I was sitting at home on the couch," -- but Meloche said the limited work Fleury got there clearly had an impact.
"He told me that if he got 10 or 15 minutes of shots a day, that was it," Meloche said. "Their [practice] time was really limited. That set him back, doing nothing for two weeks."
Both insisted they are not concerned the all-star break will cause Fleury problems -- "It's just four or five days," Meloche said -- and even feel it should work to his benefit.
"You have to think about the long run, maybe, more than the short," Fleury said. "The break will be nice, even though I'll go to the all-stars.
"It's two days. It's not really hard work. I think it will be a good rest. Then, when it comes playoff times, it helps."
First Published January 28, 2011 12:00 am