Cook: Blooming Fleury is the key to success in playoffs
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After a day when the Penguins busted out of their goal-scoring malaise in a big way, the player who should have the team and its fans most juiced as the Stanley Cup playoffs approach is not named Crosby, Malkin or Roberts.
His name is Marc-Andre Fleury.
That's how significant his performance was yesterday in the Penguins' 5-0 win against the Boston Bruins.
The shutout -- Fleury's fifth this season -- speaks for itself. He stopped all 29 shots. It's pretty hard to do better than that.
But the timing was more encouraging. Fleury pitched the shutout a day after backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault had a tremendous game in a 2-1 win against the Atlanta Thrashers. It was Thibault's third consecutive superb outing, prompting coach Michel Therrien to be asked, in so many words, if he still was 100 percent certain Fleury is his No. 1 goaltender.
"I like Marc-Andre," Therrien said, smiling.
It was the perfect answer for a couple of reasons.
What isn't there to like about Fleury's game?
And what choice does Therrien really have even if there is some little thing he doesn't care for?
It's a beautiful thing for the Penguins that Thibault is playing so well. Fleury could tear a groin in practice today or in the game tomorrow night at Washington and be lost for the season. All teams need a solid backup.
But barring an injury, Fleury has to be the guy. Thibault is a free agent after the season and might not be here for the long haul. Fleury is the Penguins' future. They need to throw him head-first into the playoff cauldron -- it will be his first experience under that kind of intense pressure -- and live with the results, good or bad. He will be a better goaltender for the experience. The team will be better for years to come because of it.
Don't lose sight of this:
It's not just about this season with these Penguins.
That's hard to wrap your arms around because the team has had such phenomenal -- not to mention unexpected -- success. It has moved into a virtual tie again with the New Jersey Devils atop the Atlantic Division. It's understandable to think it could have a lengthy stay in the playoffs. It might even be legitimate.
But the Penguins aren't as good now as they're going to be next season and the season after and the season after that. To be as good as they think they can be -- to get to where they are a Stanley Cup favorite every year -- they need Fleury.
That's why Therrien's answer to that tricky goaltending question Saturday was so right on.
The last thing the Penguins need now is for Fleury to be looking over his shoulder for Thibault.
"I think I have trust from [Therrien] and the staff," Fleury said when asked about Therrien's endorsement. "There's a comfort zone there, I think. There's a little more there each day."
This is a two-way street, of course.
It has to be a two-way street.
It's wonderful that Therrien believes in Fleury, but Fleury has to keep playing well to justify that faith. A shutout never hurts. It gave Fleury a 7-2-1 record since the shrewd Therrien publicly chastised him and benched him for two games in mid-February after he completed a lackluster two weeks by fishing out six goals in a loss to the New York Islanders. Even in his subsequent three losses -- 1-0 to the Devils, 4-3 in a shootout to the Devils and 3-1 to the Islanders -- he was strong.
Fleury gave all the credit for this latest win -- his 36th of the season, a total that ranks high among NHL leaders -- to his penalty-killers, who were terrific, and his defensemen, who also were very good. "It was awesome. It seemed like every rebound, they cleared it. They blocked some shots. It was just a good game for us."
Especially for Fleury.
"I've felt comfortable with him since day one," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "He's been there all year for us. He's done a great job leading us ...
"I just think he's playing with so much confidence right now."
Fleury will need to draw on every bit of it, come the playoffs. His track record in big games has been rather spotty. There were bad goals and bad games in the World Junior Championships, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs and the American Hockey League playoffs.
All eyes always are on the goaltender in the postseason, but that will be especially true with Fleury this season.
"I've moved on from it," he said, shrugging, of his big-game struggles.
So far, Fleury has taken the Penguins with him.
They'll go as deep into the playoffs as he carries them.
First Published March 26, 2007 12:00 am