When the NHL playoffs started a month ago, there were plenty of questions about goalies Martin Biron and Marc-Andre Fleury.
The 30-year-old Biron had never started an NHL playoff game before taking to the ice with the Philadelphia Flyers in early April. The 23-year-old Fleury had played all of five for the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring against Ottawa and they weren’t anything to write home about.
Four weeks later many of those questions have been answered about the two netminders who will square off in the Eastern Conference final.
“It was new ground for Marty, nobody really knew what to expect,” Flyers head coach John Stevens said Wednesday on an NHL conference call. “I think we all had confidence in his abilities but the fact that he had never been in the playoffs was a little bit of an unknown for him and for us.
“But he seems like he settled right in,” Stevens added. “He’s really thrived on the atmosphere. He’s had this ability to focus every game. He’s grown with confidence from beginning to now. He’s playing his best hockey of the year.”
Biron backstopped the Flyers to a seven-game win over Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the first round. But he kept his best for the second round, where he stole at least two games – if not three – in a five-game upset of the Montreal Canadiens.
“He was phenomenal against Montreal – I watched all those games,” Penguins head coach Michel Therrien said Wednesday.
Biron will like need to steal a game or two for the sixth-seeded Flyers to beat out the second-seeded Penguins. The puck drops for Game 1 Friday night in Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m. ET).
“He’s had the ability to be the difference,” said Stevens. “There’s lots of nights he’s been our best player and he’s a big reason why we are where we are.”
Fleury went into the second round of the playoffs hearing all about how the Rangers had the edge in goal with Henrik Lundqvist. The Penguins won in five games and Fleury leads all playoff goalies with a .938 save percentage.
And to think there was talk that Ty Conklin should remain the No. 1 goalie after his solid job while Fleury was out nearly three months with a high ankle sprain. Fleury earned his job back, Therrien said.
“We didn’t give him the net right away, and the No. 1 reason was because of how Ty Conklin was playing for us,” said Therrien. “So Marc-Andre fought for it, he deserved it, and the last 15 games of the regular season if you compared all the stats from the other goalies – he was the goalie with the best stats.
“At that moment, I felt really comfortable with Marc-Andre with the way he finished the year. We were confident about him and his performance in the playoffs. He played well against Ottawa and he played extremely well against the Rangers. That’s why we’re optimistic with Fleury in net right now.”
The Penguins are also optimistic because they’re rolling. At 8-1, they have the best winning percentage in the playoffs. But they know they’re in for a battle with the divisional and state rival Flyers, who won the season series 5-3-0 this year.
“I think we match up pretty evenly,” Penguins winger Ryan Malone said Wednesday. “For the fans it’s going to be something to watch.”
The two teams know each other well and Malone figures it won’t take long before they grow a healthy hate for each other.
“Probably right when the pucks drops. The first shift,” said Malone.
“It’s going to be a fun series for everybody,” he added. “Why not beat each other up a little bit to get to the next round.”