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Fleury continuing to give Penguins exactly what they need

Marc-Andre Fleury was set to watch another lengthy Penguins playoff run from the bench, but an injury to Matt Murray has thrust Fleury into a position to become Pittsburgh's playoff hero.

Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t supposed to be in this position. In fact, when the post-season began, most would have been surprised to see Fleury take the Penguins’ net for anything other than relief duty if a game were to get out of hand at any point. But then Matt Murray fell injured and Pittsburgh’s starting job fell to the old hand, and Fleury has more than answered the call.

In the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Fleury turned in a stellar performance. In his first two games, he was near unbeatable, posting a rock-solid .972 save percentage and allowing a mere two goals against. His next two outings left something to be desired, one a win and the next a loss, but when the Penguins punched their ticket to the second round, Fleury had come through with four wins, a .933 SP and 2.52 goals-against average. World-beating numbers? Maybe not, but he definitely got the job done.

But starting and winning a series in the first round was one thing, especially a series in which the Penguins were heavy favorites. Some speculated that if Murray were able to return in time, it’d be he, not Fleury, who would start against the vaunted Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. But Murray remains out with a lower-body injury, so there Fleury was, taking the crease to start the second round against the Capitals, something that seemed an impossibility a scant two weeks earlier.

And impossibility or not, here we are after one night of a second-round series that has all the feeling of an Eastern Conference final, and it was Fleury who made the start. And despite the fact Sidney Crosby scored twice and Nick Bonino notched the game winner, Fleury was the hero of the night, just as he’s been the hero of the playoffs for the Penguins thus far.

Let’s be clear, Fleury wasn’t perfect last night against the Capitals. Staring down 35 shots on Thursday night, Fleury stopped 33, but the only blasts that got by him are ones that gave him a snowball’s chance in you-know-where of actually making a save. The first goal against was a rocket wrister from Alex Ovechkin as he walked right into the Penguins’ zone. Ovechkin has made his millions feasting on goaltenders with chances like that and there’s little shame in Fleury letting that one in. Then came Evgeny Kuznetsov’s tally, which was basically an empty-net goal after Matt Niskanen picked out the Capitals winger with a beautiful cross-ice pass.

Those were Fleury’s only blemishes on the night, however. Even during an intense scramble in front of the Penguins’ net with mere minutes remaining, Fleury somehow managed to keep the puck out of the net. He threw himself around the crease haphazardly behind the pile of bodies whacking at the puck, scrambled back to his butterfly to stop a John Carlson shot from the right, wound up back at the left post to stop a Nate Schmidt wrister and then sprawled to stymie Nick Backstrom’s rebound attempt. All of this across a 20-second span of nail-biting net-front hockey. “Marc obviously made a couple of big stops for us there,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told reporters post-game. “That’s what he’s done for us throughout the course of the playoffs. He gives us that timely save when we need it. That was an important part of the game for us.”

Fleury has done that all season against the Capitals, though — making the saves necessary to at least give the Penguins a chance. His career numbers against Washington aren’t all that great, but this past season he was far and away the better of the two Pittsburgh netminders against the Penguins’ greatest rival. Is that to say that Fleury’s 2-1 record, .900 SP and 3.48 goals against average in three games were a shining example of a goaltender who has an opponents’ number? Not one bit. But those are far better numbers than Matt Murray, who had a .786 SP and 6.74 GAA against the Capitals, posted.

This isn’t to suggest Fleury would have started over a healthy Murray. It’s a small sample size and highlights only that Fleury has shown he can hang against these Capitals long enough for the Penguins to eke out a win, and that’s just what happened in Game 1.

But we all know the harsh reality here. The truth is win or lose this series, standing on his head or not, Fleury’s not long for Pittburgh and his days in Steel City are numbered. Murray's presence has made Fleury expendable, and he’s bound to be a starter elsewhere come next season. He could be in Vegas with the Golden Knights, in Texas to provide the Dallas Stars with some steady goaltending or even heading to Calgary, where the Flames have been looking for a sure-thing starter for what feels like forever now.

Has this been the perfect way for Fleury to exit, falling into the backup role in what will likely be his last in Pittsburgh? Not at all, but Fleury came in as the starter when Murray went down ahead of the season, continued to make starts here and there to spell the Penguins’ current-and-future No. 1 down the stretch and Fleury waited for a chance to prove to everyone he still had something to give the Penguins. His numbers weren’t great, or even close to the .921 SP and 2.29 GAA he posted in 2015-16, but Fleury won when he had to and played his part in Pittsburgh’s regular season success.

And now he’s hoping to play his part, in all likelihood for the last time, in one more Penguins playoff run, and his .934 SP, 2.43 GAA and five wins in six outings would suggest that he’s still got something left to give before he heads out of town. This has all the makings of his last hurrah, and what a hurrah Fleury has been making it.

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