PITTSBURGH – The player arguably most responsible for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ surge into the Stanley Cup final isn’t difficult to find. There he is, right in the middle of the crease …
Wait a minute, he was just there, but now he’s playing the puck behind the net, an area where he once dared to roam. No, sorry, that’s him making an up-ice pass to start a breakaway – again, a skill he polished only recently.
Marc-Andre Fleury can be difficult to locate these days, and not only because he’s ceased being a stay-at-home goalie who seldom wandered crease.
Fleury is also hard to spot because of his sparkly new white pads that blend in with the ice and the white-painted rear boards, making it difficult to pick him out when opposing forwards break to the net in traffic.
Those garish yellow pads he wore during his first three-plus NHL seasons, the ones that made him appear to be the biggest object in Pittsburgh black and gold other than The Bus, Jerome Bettis? They’ve been ditched, along with Fleury’s short-lived reputation of not being reliable in big games.
For all the Penguins’ world-class talent – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa – any internal poll taken of their players probably would pinpoint Fleury as their playoffs MVP to date.
His numbers illustrate that, as he is first in playoffs save percentage (.938) and shutouts (3) and second in goals-against average (1.70).
“Marc-Andre Fleury has been phenomenal for us,” coach Michel Therrien said Thursday. “Any team that wants to have success in the playoffs, the No. 1 thing has got to be your goalie.”
Fleury has heard that number before, as in the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. While Crosby was long known in Canada as the Next One, a nod to Wayne Gretzky’s Great One nickname, the 23-year-old Fleury was the First One in Pittsburgh.
Fleury arrived long before Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Sergei Gonchar, Petr Sykora, Hal Gill, Jordan Staal, and all the other key players who steered Pittsburgh into the Cup final against the Red Wings that start Saturday night in Detroit.
The Penguins were so bad when Fleury arrived at age 18, they were forced to put him between the pipes immediately, at the very age of some of the high school goalies who occasionally played games at Mellon Arena.
Fleury showed flashes from the start, making a remarkable 46 saves in his first NHL game, a 3-0 loss to Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 2003. He also shut out the Blackhawks during his first month in the league.
But, to keep from paying Fleury bonus clauses in his entry level contract, the Penguins kept bouncing him back and forth between the minors. The constant shuffling prevented him from settling into a rhythm or developing any confidence.
“It was frustrating not winning. We went through a tough time to get some experience and to be where we are right now,” Fleury said.
The Penguins also loaned him to the Canadian junior national team in December 2003, only to have his errant pass bounce off the back of a teammate and into his own net for the world title-deciding goal.
“It was a tough time, I kept playing it out in my head,” Fleury said. “But there’s nothing else I could do about it so I tried to move on, work hard and work on my game.”
Fleury’s first few pro seasons were filled with similar ups and downs, including some disappointing playoff losses at the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre AHL farm club which, coincidentally, was coached at the time by Therrien.
Fleury finally settled in last season for a much-improved Penguins team, tying for third in the NHL with 40 wins – and in those screaming yellow pads, no less. This season, after a slow start, he won his final four starts before a high ankle sprain in early December sidelined him for three months.
He used that down time for much more than rehabilitation, reworking his game with goalie coach Gilles Meloche. He watched how his Penguins fill-in, Ty Conklin, kept the offence moving fluidly by constantly playing the puck, and Fleury began losing the reluctance to leave the net. That cautiousness developed after his world juniors flub.
He also began wearing the white pads, which a Canadian eye doctor promised would make the lithe, athletic Fleury look more foreboding but also far tougher to locate far down the ice.
Since late November, Fleury has a 26-4-1 record, counting the playoffs. Something’s working.
“Before I got injured I had four wins in a row so it was starting to get better, when I came back the team was playing very well and that’s the big reason why we’ve been winning so much,” Fleury said.
The Penguins are 12-2 in the playoffs, 8-0 at home, and Fleury has won his last 18 home starts since a Nov. 21 loss to New Jersey. That’s more than six months without a home-ice loss.
Hard to imagine that a player with the gentle, soft-sounding nickname of Flower – or fleur, in French – could be so integral to a team’s Stanley Cup final run.
“He’s really had confidence,” Crosby said.
When Sykora played with Stanley Cup-winning New Jersey in 2000, he said having Martin Brodeur in net made the Devils extremely confident every night. The Penguins, he said, are similarly confident in Fleury despite his age and relative lack of playoff experience.
“Oh, yeah, I feel the same way,” Sykora said. “I feel very confident that Flower’s in the net and I know he’s going to make the save, and even if I make a mistake he’s going to make that save for me and the team.”