PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Penguins stuck with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the off-season, convinced two straight playoff meltdowns have not robbed the former Stanley Cup winner of his confidence.
The early returns are promising.
Fleury stopped 28 shots for his 250th NHL victory and franchise-record 24th shutout in Pittsburgh’s 3-0 season-opening win over New Jersey on Thursday night.
It was the kind of vintage performance the Penguins expect to rely on regularly as they take aim at another championship.
“We believe in (Fleury),” star forward Sidney Crosby said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in here. He made some great saves. We probably made him work harder than he needed to at the end, but there were some beauties.”
Crosby and newcomer Chuck Kobasew scored four minutes apart in the first period and Craig Adams scored a rare goal in the third in his 800th career game for Pittsburgh, who toned down their high-octane offence for a more disciplined approach.
The Penguins—the NHL’s highest scoring team each of the last two seasons—took just 21 shots, including nine over the final two periods.
“I love the way our team played defence,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “The penalty kill was big the two times it had to be and … Marc made some big saves late.”
Perhaps none more impressive than a behind-the-back stop on New Jersey’s Travis Zajac with less than eight minutes to play. Zajac fired a shot from the left circle that clanged off the post and crawled up Fleury’s back. He managed to hit his glove on it to preserve a three-goal lead.
“I tried to reach as quickly as possible,” Fleury said. “I learned it from watching the (Pittsburgh) Pirates, I guess.”
Cory Schneider made 18 saves for the Devils. Schneider’s start marked the first time in 19 years Martin Brodeur didn’t play in the season opener for New Jersey. Brodeur is expected to start Friday at home against the New York Islanders.
“It’s tough to get down against a team like that and claw back,” Schneider said. “We had some chances, but Fleury made some big saves.”
Rather than head in a different direction after a disappointing four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, the Penguins fortified the core that has been together for five occasionally brilliant seasons.
Pittsburgh signed stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to long-term extensions, brought back Pascal Dupuis, and added two years to Bylsma’s contract.
The only alterations to the roster were minor. Defenceman Rob Scuderi returned to Pittsburgh four years after helping them win the franchise’s third Stanley Cup title. Kobasew earned a spot following a solid training camp, and 19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta did enough to stick around—at least for a bit—while Letang recovers from a lower-body injury.
Kobasew wasted little time making an impact, scoring 9:26 into the season when he jammed in a rebound of Brandon Sutter’s shot.
Crosby doubled the lead a few minutes later when he and Dupuis created a two-on-one. When a New Jersey defenceman slid over to cover Dupuis, Crosby wristed a shot past Schneider’s glove.
“It’s a tough play when a guy is moving laterally like that, especially a guy like him,” Schneider said. “You try to take away as much as you can. It was just over the glove.”
It was all the insurance Fleury would need. The Penguins stayed with the former No. 1 pick for this season, believing he and veteran Tomas Vokoun would make up the best tandem in the league.
But that duo will be split up for at least three months as Vokoun recovers from blood clots discovered early in training camp. The injury leaves rookie Jeff Zatkoff as the lone backup, meaning Fleury will almost certainly be a workhorse while Vokoun recovers.
That is fine by Fleury, who is only too happy to put the recent past firmly in the rearview mirror.
“I’m glad it was finally a real game,” Fleury said. “I thought the guys played great. A couple of bounces here and there, and there you go.”
While the Penguins stood pat in the off-season, things are hardly as settled in New Jersey, which failed to make the playoffs last season for only the third time in 23 seasons.
David Blitzer and Joshua Harris took over as owners of the financially troubled franchise in August, and Schneider was acquired in a trade with Vancouver to take some of the workload off the 41-year-old Brodeur.
The Devils also brought in well-travelled forward Jaromir Jagr, taken 15 spots ahead of Brodeur in the 1990 NHL draft, four years before Maatta was born.
Despite controlling play at times over the final two periods, New Jersey couldn’t solve a goaltender—and a team—determined to prove it can play defence.
“It was one of those nights, the puck didn’t go in,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “We’ve got to find a way to put some in the back of the net.”
NOTES: Penguins LW James Neal left in the first period with an injury and didn’t return … The Devils scratched D Mark Fayne, C Jacob Josefson and LW Rostislav Olesz … The Penguins scratched D Deryk Engelland and C Joe Vitale … The Penguins host Buffalo on Saturday.
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP