PITTSBURGH - You would think the road to success for the first overall pick of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft would be a smooth one.
But that has not been the case for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
In fact, it has only been lately that the Pittsburgh Penguins stopper has justified his team’s decision to 1) choose him first overall and 2) hand him the reins down the stretch after backup Ty Conklin had played so well. But if you were one of the many who wondered whether or not Fleury would ever be a bona fide No. 1 goalie in the NHL, you can wash those nasty thoughts away.
He has arrived and he’s here to stay.
“When you look at the Stanley Cups that I have been fortunate to win, goaltending is always the biggest thing,” said veteran Pittsburgh defenseman Darryl Sydor. “Eddie Belfour played amazing for us when we won the Cup in Dallas and then Nik (Khabibulin) was great against Calgary. Marc didn’t have the start he wanted and the injury probably ended up helping him in the long run. He got away from the game for a bit and was able to re-energize and re-focus. He worked on his fundamentals and I think he’s a better goalie now.”
The injury Sydor referred to was a high ankle sprain that kept Fleury out of the lineup for 34 games. During that time Conklin was able to restore what was a fading career and was a big reason why the Penguins enjoyed such a successful regular season. That’s why when Fleury returned to good health he was not handed the starter’s job. In fact, he was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American League for five games to work on his game.
“When he was ready to play, we sent him to Wilkes-Barre and he played really well there,” said Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien. “We didn’t want to rush anything with him. The No. 1 reason we sent him down was to make sure his timing was right because before his injury he had been playing very well.”
Therrien said Fleury responded to the challenge of earning back the starter’s job.
“First of all, Marc-Andre knows we have a lot of confidence in him,” Therrien said. “The way we treated him since he turned pro, he knows he’s our guy. I didn’t need to have a 1-on-1 meeting to tell him that. The thing is, the way Conklin played, you have to respect his performance. It was always about performance. Whether you are a first-year guy, a five-year guy or a 10-year guy, we base our decision on performance. And Ty was phenomenal. I had no reason to take him out of the lineup.
“Our players, at the time, had a lot of confidence in Ty. I had a conversation with Ty when Fleury was ready to play and told him to keep playing the way he was and he’d stay in the net. I go with performance. At the end of the day Ty slipped a bit and Fleury was ready to take over. Marc-Andre really picked it up.”
Did he ever. Fleury was 10-2-1 in his last 13 starts and did not allow more than two goals in 20 of his final 21 games in the regular season. He has also put together a remarkable 17-game winning streak on home ice and hopes to extend it Saturday night in Game 4 of the final.
“Since Marc came back from his injury, he has been one of, if not the best, goalie in the NHL,” said teammate Maxime Talbot. “He is awesome out there. He’s loose and having fun and we would not be here if it was not for him. He has matured a lot and it is fun to see him out there kicking it and having fun.”
Fleury is emerging as a playoff hero. While the Red Wings are still viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the Cup, the Penguins have restored their confidence after a couple of humiliating shutout defeats in Detroit and if Pittsburgh is able to even the series, you can bet Fleury will be one of the big reasons why.
“I really love playing at home,” Fleury said. “The fans get behind us and it is comforting to be able to look around and see familiar faces.”
THN senior writer Mike Brophy is on the road following the Stanley Cup final and will be filing daily reports until a champion is crowned. To read his other entries, click HERE.
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