Cook: Fleury growing into big-time goalie
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Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is much too nice of a kid -- a true gentleman, really -- to address the many critics who have picked apart his game this spring. So we will do it for him after his terrific performance in the 3-2 Game 1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes last night.
Take that and, you know, stick it.
Not to be rude.
Miroslav Satan, Evgeni Malkin and Philippe Boucher scored the goals for the Penguins, but Fleury was the biggest reason they got the early jump in this Eastern Conference final series. "He was probably the only chance we had to win tonight, the way we played," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "He stole that one."
The other Penguins weren't quite as awful as Eaton portrayed it, but his point is well-taken. Fleury was just the slightest bit better than Carolina goalie Cam Ward, who was darn near magnificent. That didn't just have to happen for the Penguins to win in this game. It has to keep happening for them to beat the Hurricanes in the race to four wins.
I see no reason it won't.
You have doubts?
That's ridiculous, but, sadly, there appears to be more than a few out there who do. I'm guessing that the good-natured Fleury will continue to shrug off the non-believers and smile that silly smile of his all the way to the Stanley Cup final for the second consecutive season.
Politely, of course.
This is a big-time goaltender, folks.
Like all of 'em, Fleury gives up a bad goal here and there. It happened in the Washington series and the Philadelphia series before that.
But like only the truly great ones, Fleury makes the huge saves when they mean the most. That's why you can't just look at his statistics, which couldn't match Ward's coming into the series. Against Philadelphia, the big stop came in the third period of Game 2 when Fleury stopped center Jeff Carter with a fabulous skate save, giving the Penguins a chance to win in overtime. Against Washington, it was stealing the Capitals' great Alexander Ovechkin blind early in Game 7 with a glove save that led directly to the Penguins' 6-2 win.
Then, last night.
Fleury was a wall early in a 0-0 game, making great saves on Tuomo Ruutu, Eric Staal, Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen during a Carolina power play. He robbed center Chad LaRose in the second period, somehow stopping his backhander after a rebound. And he was big late, diving to make a save that prevented Staal from scoring the tying goal in the final 30 seconds.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that some outside the Penguins' locker room have had issues with Fleury this spring, "but not one from inside ... he's been scrutinized a lot for a young goaltender, but he's done everything inside our room to answer all of those questions and more. We know what he can do."
As for those statistics?
"Look at his wins," Eaton said.
Fleury is at nine and counting.
Only Detroit's Chris Osgood has as many in these playoffs.
Fleury made it to 14 a year ago before the Penguins lost in the Cup final to Detroit.
Obviously, the goal is two more wins this time around.
"He loves standing up for our team," Penguins winger Matt Cooke said. "He loves the pressure."
That's a good thing because it isn't going to ease anytime soon in this series. The great Ward, who won a Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP in the playoffs in the Hurricanes' run to the championship in 2006, will make sure of that.
Ward isn't going to wilt after just one loss. Carolina dropped Game 1 on the road in each of its series this year against New Jersey and Boston only to ride him all the way to Game 7 wins in each series.
Certainly, Ward didn't fold last night after Satan and Malkin scored in a 1:24 span midway through the first period to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead. He finished with 28 saves, many of them extraordinary.
"We know Ward is a great goaltender," Cooke said.
It's nice to think all of Pittsburgh -- not just some of Pittsburgh -- will come to the same conclusion about Fleury sometime before May turns into June.
First Published May 19, 2009 12:22 am