Cook: Fleury focus of damage control from Game 1
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OTTAWA -- Of course, inquiring minds want to know.
What did Penguins veterans Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi tell Sidney Crosby late in that embarrassing 6-3 loss Wednesday night to the Ottawa Senators?
The image of the three huddling on the Penguins' bench probably has been played a million times on television in Canada, where the great Crosby gets the attention that Peyton Manning does in the States times 10.
"It was no big deal," Roberts said yesterday as the Penguins tried to regroup and get ready for Game 2 of their playoff series tomorrow afternoon. "We just talked about it only being one game."
"We talked about the importance of staying positive," Recchi said. "But it really wasn't necessary with Sid. He has a great feel for the game, a great understanding of the game."
It was another conversation involving Recchi later Wednesday night -- this one in the privacy of the Penguins' dressing room, far from the prying cameras -- that will have a greater impact on the rest of the series. According to Recchi, his talk with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury went like this:
"You played great, Marc-Andre."
"What do you mean? The six goals?"
"The heck with that. Don't worry about it. We let you down tonight. We were bad, not you."
By the time the Penguins practiced yesterday, everybody was working the damage control with Fleury, whose NHL playoff debut wasn't one he will want to remember. Crosby was among the first to go to Fleury, telling him and later the assembled media, "The guys were really happy with the way he played." Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney found their goaltender and apologized for -- quoting Whitney now -- "leaving him out to dry a couple of times." Coach Michel Therrien made it a point to talk to Fleury during practice, later saying: "Thank God for him. [The final score] could have been worse."
Hey, it doesn't matter if they believe it or you believe it.
What's important is that Fleury believes it.
It's the Penguins' only real chance to win the series.
In a perfect world, the Penguins would have blown out Ottawa in Game 1 and the Senators would have had to spend two days reading and listening to how they are choking dogs in the playoffs. But we all know this isn't a perfect world. The Senators scored a cheap goal on Fleury just 97 seconds in when he caught his skate on his goal post and went flopping to the ice just as Ottawa defenseman Andrej Meszaros was firing a routine slap shot. They added another relatively soft goal five minutes later and took control with a 2-0 lead when winger Chris Kelly's wrister snuck between Fleury's legs. Now, Fleury has to spend the two days between games being reminded of how his postseason play in the past hasn't been so terrific. It doesn't matter that he got his act together and played pretty well after Kelly's goal. It's a heavy burden for the kid to carry, at least until the next game.
Hence all that attention devoted to Fleury's psyche.
"He's got a pretty strong character over there," Orpik said, nodding in Fleury's direction as Fleury faced a tough media interrogation in English and French across the room. "I don't think I'm too worried about that. It's well known that the coach called him out [in February]. He could have gone in a shell right then, but he didn't. He played his best hockey after that."
A lot of people thought Therrien and Fleury might be having another of their episodes when Therrien pulled Fleury not long after he gave up the sixth Ottawa goal midway through the third period. But that was strictly a mercy killing. Therrien wanted to get Fleury out of the game before his confidence was completely shot. Backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault knew exactly what was happening the instant Therrien called on him.
"They just kept coming and coming and were banging around the net," Thibault said of the Senators. "It was like a pinball game out there. When that happens, it's good to give a guy a break and let him regroup and start fresh on Saturday."
Therrien has been known to show little patience with Fleury at playoff time. That was the case when the two were at the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre minor-league club and Fleury struggled under the pressure. But that's clearly not the case now. Therrien needs Fleury to win, not just in this series but in the seasons ahead. He's handling Fleury with that big picture in mind. That's why he waited until a television timeout after the sixth goal before he replaced him with Thibault. He didn't want to embarrass him, "didn't want to put him in a situation that was tough for him to leave the ice."
Fleury appreciated the gesture.
He appreciated how his teammates have his back.
He doesn't need additional motivation to play well tomorrow, but it can't hurt that he has some.
First Published April 12, 2007 11:07 pm