Fleury blooms when it counts
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Like all NHL coaches, Detroit's Mike Babcock has the perfect understanding of the significance of the first goal in a big hockey game.
"It's important if we [get] it," Babcock said. "It's not important if we don't."
That's the man's story and he's sticking to it.
No matter what happened last night in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.
The Penguins got the first goal last night -- by Jordan Staal in the first minute of the second period -- in their 2-1 victory, a win that forces Game 7 Friday night at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.
Who would have guessed after the frightful 5-0 loss in Game 5 that the Penguins would prevail in Game 6 to set up a winner-takes-all game Friday night for the precious Cup?
"We're still alive," said relieved goaltender and star-of-the-night Marc-Andre Fleury. "It's awesome."
"We found a way to survive," equally relieved captain Sidney Crosby said. "Now, it's anyone's game."
Staal deserves his props, no doubt. He cruised down the right wing, a 2-on-1 breakaway with teammate Matt Cooke quickly developing. Staal took the shot, but goaltender Chris Osgood stopped it. The puck bounced right back to Staal and he buried the wrist shot.
Mellon Arena throbbed.
And at the other end of the ice, Fleury had to be smiling his goofy smile under his helmet.
This first-goal business has another side to it. Not only does your team need to score it, you need to keep your opponent from getting it.
Take a bow, Monsieur Fleury.
Talk about a deserving choice as the game's No. 1 star.
Fleury was spectacular early and late.
"Anyone who questioned him after Game 5, he shut them up tonight," Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton said.
Did it right from the get-go, too.
Clearly, there was no hangover for Fleury, who was pulled in the second period Saturday night after allowing the five goals. He had to face just three shots in the first period, but two -- by Detroit center extraordinaire Henrik Zetterberg -- were fabulous scoring chances after great passes from linemate Pavel Datsyuk.
Fleury said no when Zetterberg, who was alone in front, fired a wrister just 3:25 into the game. He said no to Zetterberg again even more emphatically at 18:23 of the period after Datsyuk put the puck on Zetterberg's tape after a move by Datsyuk absolutely undressed Crosby.
You don't think those saves were important? The Red Wings are 10-1 in these playoffs when scoring first. If either of those Zetterberg shots had gotten by Fleury, I'm thinking the Red Wings would have been celebrating with the Cup on Mellon Arena ice for the second consecutive spring. As it was, the Cup stayed in its special box and will remain there until Friday night when the first goal figures to be huge again.
"I think in the regular season, if I'm not mistaken, the stats are like 80 percent the team that scores first [wins]," Babcock said. "So it's always important to get started on time."
That first goal was especially important last night, not just because the Penguins' season was on the line, but because it was clear early they weren't going to get much against Osgood. He stopped the 12 shots he faced in the first period, then made terrific saves to rob the Penguins' Max Talbot, Ruslan Fedotenko, Staal, Fedotenko again and Evgeni Malkin in the second period. Lucky for the home team that winger Tyler Kennedy was able to get the puck past Osgood for a 2-0 lead early in the third period.
That was enough for Fleury, who was brilliant in each of the Penguins' three wins at home. It's true, he was fortunate late in the second period when the puck ended up underneath him after a Zetterberg shot clanged off the post . Sure, the Red Wings' Kris Draper was able to beat Fleury off a rebound midway through the third. And yes, it was timely that defenseman Rob Scuderi was in the crease in the final seconds to help prevent the tying goal after a flurry in front.
But Fleury was tall and strong down the stretch, helping the Penguins to kill off penalties to Malkin and Bill Guerin. He literally saved the game -- and the season -- when he stopped Detroit winger Dan Cleary on a breakaway with 1:42 left after another unbelievable pass from Datsyuk.
"I had all the confidence in the world he was going to make that save," Crosby said.
"That's what Marc-Andre has been able to do for us throughout this playoffs," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma added.
Now, it's on to Detroit where Fleury and the Penguins must conquer their demons from losses in Games 1, 2 and 5 if they're going to win the Cup.Game 7 is another opportunity, the final opportunity, "an unbelievable opportunity," Crosby said.
Staal went a long way to delivering it by getting that first goal.
Fleury did the rest.
First Published June 10, 2009 12:00 am