CANONSBURG, Pa. – The puck is going into the net a lot more since the Pittsburgh Penguins changed coaches, reconfigured their offence and adapted a more aggressive, go-get-’em system.
That’s great for Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s two leading scorers. That’s not so good for Marc-Andre Fleury, the goaltender who carried the Penguins to within two wins of lifting the Stanley Cup last spring.
The Penguins aren’t the team they were a year ago – they wouldn’t qualify for the postseason if it started Wednesday – and it’s partly because Fleury isn’t the goalie he was most of the last two seasons.
There’s worry about Fleury, whose game has gone from below-average to alarmingly bad since the Penguins began opening it up. The goalie who had a 1.97 goals-against average in four playoff rounds last spring has given up 13 goals in his last three games, and he was yanked after yielding five goals during a 5-2 loss in Washington on Sunday.
“Uhh, maybe a little bit,” Fleury said Tuesday when asked if the more aggressive system is making it harder on the goalies. “The thing, though, I think is that we just started doing it.
“I think we’ll practise more this week and once when we get everybody more comfortable, it will be good. (But) it’s a little bit different.”
Fleury looked to be settling in while playing well in consecutive starts against Columbus, Detroit and San Jose two weeks ago. Since then, he has permitted 21 goals in six games, the kind of numbers that would get a rookie goalie sent down.
It’s certainly not what the Penguins expect from a former No. 1 draft pick who was as important to their playoff run last spring as Crosby, Malkin and Marian Hossa were. After Pittsburgh took out Philadelphia in the five-game Eastern Conference final, the Flyers’ Daniel Briere said, “The series was Fleury. He made all the big saves.”
He’s not now.
“The last couple of games there were a lot of goals, and that’s something that gets me mad when that happens,” said Fleury, who is 10-11-2 since Dec. 27. “I’ve been working hard with Gilles (Meloche, the goaltending coach) on the ice and talking about some different stuff. I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t happen very often.”
With the Penguins in desperate need of every point with 21 games remaining, they can’t possibly afford to have it happen very often with Fleury.
“He’s our No. 1, he’s the guy who’s going to carry the load for us,” said new coach Dan Bylsma, who will start Fleury against the Islanders on Wednesday night. “We believe in what he can do for us going forward the rest of the season.
“He’s going to get that chance.”
Goaltending, of course, isn’t the only reason why the reigning Eastern Conference-champion Penguins are 16-21-3 since being 13-5-3 in mid-November, but it’s one of them.
“I think maybe we don’t play the same way as last year,” Fleury said, pointing out the goalie is only one piece of a 20-player puzzle. “I think you need the goalie to be a big part of the team and help you win games, but it’s still a team game and altogether we’ve got to do a good job.”
Statistics illustrate the slip in Fleury’s play: A .906 save percentage, compared to .921 last season and .,933 in the playoffs. A 2.95 goals-against average that is only the 34th best in the league and doesn’t compare to his 2.33 of last season.
Playing Montreal on Thursday, the Penguins scored twice in the first three minutes of the third period to take a 4-2 lead in a key game for both teams. But the Canadiens quickly scored twice on long slapshots – normally, Fleury stops them without a problem – and the Penguins had to score yet again to win 5-4. They won by the same score two days later in Philadelphia.
Much like a major league team can’t win consistently when a starting pitcher gives up five runs a game, neither can an NHL team when a goalie allows so many pucks to reach the net.
Still, Fleury remains certain he can raise his game to the level needed to get the Penguins into the postseason.
“I think you’ve got to be confident, even if some goals go in, and to play well you’ve got to stay positive,” Fleury said. “I think the guys will keep improving in the system and altogether and we’ll be dangerous for other teams.”