Penguins' Fleury still learning, improving
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With limbs that seem to stretch in ways they shouldn't and a personality that bubbles, Marc-Andre Fleury might conjure a couple of characters.
Gumby or Goofy. Take your pick.
As with public perception in a lot of cases, though, those are fairly superficial -- if understandable -- descriptions of the Penguins goaltender.
Dig deeper, and a seriously talented athlete emerges, someone who is learning to stay centered and has surpassed the limitations some ascribed to him.
Like the way Fleury blew up the concept that he was not good enough to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup title.
His last-second lunge to his right to stop a potential tying goal by Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the final in June instantly became part of NHL lore and ensured that Fleury's name and those of his teammates will be etched on the trophy by the time the Penguins raise their championship banner Friday before their season opener against the New York Rangers.
"I've watched it a couple times," Fleury said of that save. "That's pretty cool for my career, but it's just another save. I'm just happy that he didn't score on that one.
"I think I've heard people say I proved them wrong a little bit. I'm proud of that. But I don't pay that much attention to what's been said. I'm going to try my best."
So far, that includes a 40-win season, in 2006-07, and wins in seven of his nine career playoff series. He could add to his resume by playing for Canada in the 2010 Olympics.
It seems that Fleury, the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft, has been around a long time, but he is just 24 and still learning -- about rebound control and puck handling, but mostly about things the outside world doesn't see.
That includes a new aspect of his daily regimen: stretching.
The butterfly style goaltender with quick feet might make one save look simple, and on the next he might seem to defy the constraints of human anatomy.
"He's so flexible," said Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. "I'd never get up if I played like him. One game and I'd be out."
Fleury, though, does not consider himself overly limber.
"My legs just go that way," he said. "My hip flexors are not very flexible. My quads are not so flexible. I just try to stop the puck. I don't really think about how far I stretch."
Like pretty much all athletes, Fleury has been instructed to do stretching exercises regularly since he was a tyke. Only after he missed 13 games the first half of last season because of a torn groin muscle did he really begin to listen.
He hasn't made a big deal of it; he just watches what his teammates do before games and practices and emulates them.
"I would go on the ice and stretch a little, warm up, but now I have to warm up in the gym," Fleury said. "Maybe it's a new style for me."
General manager Ray Shero couldn't believe his bendable goaltender got by so many years without taking stretching seriously.
"That surprises me because he's like Gumby," Shero said.
The Penguins' Mike Kadar, like all team strength and conditioning coaches, preaches stretching. He has a theory how the wiry, 6-foot-2, 180-pound goaltender got away with being a slacker in that area so long.
"Most of the goalies that I've seen are fairly limber and Gumby-like," Kadar said. "I think with 'Flower' the athleticism overrides the flexibility aspect. He's flexible, but he could be a little more flexible -- but he's just so athletic. He's extremely strong and explosive."
Strong could also describe Fleury's improving mental game, even if he is always smiling and bopping around off the ice.
With a hodgepodge lineup in front of him, Fleury hasn't put up great numbers this preseason -- 0-3 with a 4.15 goals-against average and an .845 save percentage in four appearances. That won't sit well with him, which is why his teammates expect him to have the fires burning once the season starts.
"I think that's key in a goaltender, that competitive nature, and he has it," defenseman Mark Eaton said.
Fleury has had to learn to balance that nature with quickly letting go of the frustration of giving up a goal.
"He doesn't like to get scored on, whether it's a game or practice," team captain Sidney Crosby said emphatically.
"They really [tick] me off," Fleury said. "They make me swear. That's the worst feeling for me, especially if it's a really bad one.
"I remember before, having the goals in my head. The guys are coming down [on the next rush] and you're still thinking about that.
"Now, I get mad for a little bit. I think about it for a little bit, go for a skate, take a drink of water. I watch it on the Jumbotron to see what happened. Then when the puck drops, I try to forget about it."
That kind of thinking might be counter to the one-dimensional impression fans have of Fleury based on what they see in his interviews.
"I think a lot of people when you look at Marc-Andre off the ice, the way his demeanor is, he's happy-go-lucky," Shero, who is in his fourth season, said. "But he gets on the ice, man, does he want to win, and he competes hard and he comes with that athleticism.
"Every year I've been here, he's taken a step. I think that's part of his journey. He's such a young goaltender. They say it takes defensemen awhile, but what about goaltenders? He's been our go-to guy and carried the load."
First Published September 29, 2009 12:00 am