The defense has Fleury's back
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They say big Penguins defenseman Hal Gill isn't exactly fleet of skate. You could have fooled me. He looked like Fast Willie Parker yesterday when he went after New York Rangers pest Sean Avery at the end of the Penguins' 2-0 win.
"He took a whack at [Marc-Andre] Fleury," Gill said. "I didn't think that was right."
The referees and linesmen stepped in quickly before things got ugly. That's probably a good thing for Avery. Penguins tough guy Georges Laraque also had made it to the scrum by that point.
"It's nice to know those guys have my back," Fleury said afterward. "I don't have to worry about that other stuff. I just have to play my game."
It's no wonder the Penguins are quick to protect Fleury.
Can you say Franchise Player?
That's what Fleury has been in these playoffs.
"He's been our best player since he came back," center Max Talbot said. "He's been the best goaltender in the league."
Mad Max gets no argument here.
Fleury is 6-0 this postseason and has stopped 153 of 162 shots.
But this shutout was about more than Fleury. The Rangers had 26 shots but precious few good scoring chances. As Rangers coach Tom Renney noted, "I'm not going to suggest that it was really easy for [Fleury], but it certainly could have been tougher."
Blame or credit for that depends on your perspective. Renney blamed his team for not moving the puck quicker. "When you've got it, you've got to go." Penguins coach Michel Therrien watched the same game and credited his club for playing "a really tight-checking game ... We have so many offensive weapons that people sometimes forget we can play that type of game."
Both Renney and Therrien had a point, but it's awfully hard not to like the Penguins' defensive work.
"I don't think we gave up an odd-man rush," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "I can't remember one time when they had a two-on-one or a three-on-two. That's huge. You give those up, that's when you get in trouble."
Then, there was the Talbot perspective, which gets right to the point why these Penguins are starting to look a little more each day like a Stanley Cup team.
"It's nice to see us be able to win a game, 5-4, then, two days later, come back and win, 1-0," Talbot said.
If you were even remotely concerned that Fleury was shaken by having to fish four pucks out of his net in Game 1 Friday night, you shouldn't have been. On three of the four Rangers' goals, he had no chance. One hit off Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar's skate. Another was a deflection out of the air, perhaps with a high stick. A third was a blistering shot by center Scott Gomez off a sweet pass from Jaromir Jagr. Only a wrist shot by Avery -- he's a pretty good player when he isn't agitating -- could have been blamed on Fleury.
If anything, you should have been encouraged by how Fleury played in Game 1. He kept his cool after the Rangers jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second period and gave the Penguins a chance to come back and win.
"I had no doubt he would play really well today," Therrien said.
Neither did Fleury's teammates.
"We trust him," winger Jarkko Ruutu said.
"He's playing out of his mind," Whitney added. "Everything is hitting him right now."
Certainly, that was the case when Jagr broke free down the slot midway through the second period after taking a drop pass from linemate Martin Straka. Surely, the great Jagr would get a goal and give his team a momentum-changing 1-0 lead.
"I just tried to wait as much as I could," said Fleury, who turned away Jagr's wrister, seemingly effortlessly.
Said an appreciative Talbot, "That's the Fleury I want in net. That's the goalie I want in net."
As good as Fleury has been, it never hurts to be a little lucky, too. After Fleury stopped a shot by Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky with four minutes-and-change left in the game, Straka kept whacking at the rebound and appeared to score the tying goal.
There was only one problem for the Rangers: The referee behind the Penguins' net blew the play dead an instant earlier when he lost sight of the puck under Fleury.
"I thought it was an accurate call," Renney said, surprising diplomatic for a losing coach after a tough game.
The challenge figures to get tougher for the Penguins when the series resumes at Madison Square Garden with Game 3 tomorrow night. The saves figure to get tougher for Fleury. The Rangers will get more traffic in front of him, if Renney has his way. They'll get in his head, if Avery has his.
All concerned in the Penguins' dressing room yesterday were convinced that's what Avery was trying to do with that nonsense at the end.
"I don't see the point," Gill said, sniffing. "Fleury is pretty solid."
I'm going way out on a limb here to make a guess:
Gill and Laraque plan on seeing to it that Fleury stays that way.
First Published April 28, 2008 12:00 am