PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Nearly a month into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top goalie hasn’t lost a game in regulation. He is second in the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage. When he’s played, the Penguins have recorded 11 of a possible 12 points.
The dilemma: He’s not Marc-Andre Fleury, who won the Stanley Cup with a brilliant Game 7 against Detroit less than two years ago and was a Canadian Olympian last winter.
Instead, backup goalie Brent Johnson’s 5-0-1 record, 1.16 goals-against average and .960 save percentage are creating a tricky situation for coach Dan Bylsma as the Penguins begin a three-game road trip Wednesday in Dallas.
Does Bylsma keep playing the goalie who can’t seem to lose? Or does he keep trying to get his starter going, knowing that once Fleury plays himself out of his slump the Penguins will be a stronger team for the long term?
Bylsma wasn’t saying Tuesday, but Johnson’s play—he hasn’t allowed a goal in regulation during his past two starts—may have answered the question for him.
“He’s got some gaudy numbers right now,” Bylsma said. “That’s definitely a factor in the decisions for these three games in four days.”
So are these: Fleury is 1-5, with a 3.35 goals-against average and an .863 save percentage that uncharacteristically rank near the bottom of the league.
Fleury, who doesn’t turn 26 until Nov. 28 but already is in his seventh NHL season, has experienced slumps before. This one is perplexing because it’s lasted all season and may have begun during last season’s playoffs. Fleury has given up at least three goals in all six starts and in nine of 10 dating to last season, while Johnson has yet to allow more than two goals in any of his six starts.
It’s the reversal of a season ago when Fleury, only four months removed from winning the Stanley Cup, won his first eight starts.
“It’s long, a frustrating feeling, but it’s about getting those games in the back of my head and moving forward,” Fleury said. “I try to stay confident—sometimes, that gets in your head a lot—but you have to be able to forget about it, put it aside. That’s when you’re able to get out of it.”
The Penguins are confident a goalie who has won at least 35 games in three of the past four seasons will come out of it. One reason is his attitude.
Fleury never whines, pouts or complains about teammates’ mistakes that may lead to goals. During practice, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s on a 10-game winning streak or a 10-game losing streak.
“He’s a guy who brings a lot of energy and life to our team, so we just stay positive,” defenceman Kris Letang said. “We know it’s going to come back. Everybody is confident it’s going to come back. It’s just a question of time.”
With 70 games remaining, the Penguins have plenty of time. But, with a 6-5-1 record, they’re off to a worse start than last season, when the playoffs seemed to be a near-certainty after the reigning Stanley Cup champions won 11 of their first 13.
For now, Fleury will keep working with goaltenders coach Gilles Meloche on his positioning and the other basics of the position. They’ll also watch game tapes, with the hope that one good game is all that’s necessary to get Fleury turned around.
The 33-year-old Johnson is in a delicate situation, too. He wants to keep playing, yet he understands the Penguins have a significant investment in Fleury, who signed a US$35 million, seven-year contract in 2008.
“I’ve been around for a while, so I know the opportunity (to play regularly) doesn’t come along that often,” said Johnson, who hasn’t started more than 28 games since 2002-03. “Any goalie will tell you the same thing, you want to play as much as you can. The more you play, the more comfortable you feel in there. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter to Flower (Fleury) or I. If the team gets a win, that’s it.”