Penguins goaltenders Fleury, Johnson say physical play has intensified
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Penguins assistant Gilles Meloche was a long-time NHL goaltender and no slouch with 270 wins.
Still, when he entered the team's dressing room Saturday night to congratulate pupil Marc-Andre Fleury on reaching 200 wins with an 8-3 victory against Buffalo at just 27 years of age, Meloche cracked, "You beat me by 10 years."
Meloche considers Fleury to be entering the prime of his career, and he knows that these days Fleury -- as well as Penguins backup Brent Johnson and all their masked NHL colleagues -- have to contend with a climate that isn't exactly goalie-friendly.
"It seems like this year I've been run over the most that I've ever been before," said Fleury, the likely starter for Tuesday's home game against Chicago.
"I've noticed," Johnson said. "It does seem like it is more this year."
In a 6-3 win against Ottawa last month, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby got an elbowing penalty after a jostling match with Nick Foligno in the Penguins crease. Crosby said he saw Foligno run into Fleury a few times, and off-ice verbal sparring ensued among Crosby, Foligno and Senators general manager Bryan Murray.
Referees can and have waved off goals when an opposing player is physically impeding a goalie, sometimes issuing a goaltender interference minor penalty.
As Crosby might attest, a lot goes uncalled.
"A lot of times the ref will say, 'If that had gone in, it wouldn't have been a goal.' Ha, ha, ha. Maybe," Johnson said.
"I think it's very tough for the referees because the rules do permit guys to make a run and go to the net. That's how a lot of goals are scored."
What's incidental contact, and what's intentional?
"It's tough. There's a gray area there," Johnson said. "How can you judge that, especially for a ref? A guy gets tripped up going to the net, smacks the goalie. Or a guy rolled him in. It happens a lot."
It's not just a matter of opposing forwards providing an effective screen, such as Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom does when he famously parks his body in front of goaltenders -- "Holmstrom's always been the same," Fleury said.
The newer trend is a smothering presence, sometimes with contact.
"Just get there, prevent the goalie from moving, or disturbing you and then you're a little late on [reacting to] the shot," Fleury said. "Sometimes I've got a guy on me and here comes the shot or the goal.
"It's something we're seeing more and more."
It used to be illegal for players to have both skates in the crease, but Meloche pointed to a goal by Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson on Friday when hulking teammate Zenon Konopka was fully in the blue paint with Johnson.
Goaltenders can hope one of their defensemen is free to come and help clear the area in front of the net -- minding the fact that they risk a penalty -- or they can engage opposing skaters themselves.
"You've got to fight your way through players all the time," Meloche said. "It takes away from your concentration. The only thing you think about is the puck, so when you start having to push players around, it's tough."
Opposing players are able to close in on goaltenders so freely, at least in part, because of a crackdown on rules prohibiting obstruction -- holding, hooking, grabbing someone's stick, etc. -- which has followed the work stoppage that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
"Skaters have the ability to just drive the net hard," Johnson said. "Guys can't them hold up. You hold them up, and you get a penalty.
"I think if the obstruction rules were to be tweaked a little bit, you could hold the guy [briefly], but how are you going to do that?"
It's doubtful the NHL would go backward in that area. The league has shaped rules to accentuate skill and scoring.
Penguins' skaters are no less likely to get in the face of opposing goaltenders to help produce goals.
"We emphasize going to the net on our team," Meloche said. "You know every team's going to do it. You pretty well see it throughout the league.
"As long as the refs keep giving them leeway, [a certain amount of interfering with goalies] is going to happen."
NOTES -- The Penguins had the day off Sunday. ... Defensemen Carl Sneep and Brian Strait were reassigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Sneep made his NHL debut Saturday and got an assist. Strait has been practicing as he reached the end of a two-month recovery for a hyperextended elbow.
First Published December 19, 2011 12:00 am