By Matt Popchock
For the few of you who clicked on this expecting detailed analysis of the Penguins’ 2-0 loss to New Jersey at the Prudential Center Thursday night, sorry to disappoint. You won’t get it here, because it simply isn’t worth analyzing. It seems almost nonsensical to rehash a home-ice win by Jacques Lemaire’s boys that was as formulaic as an episode of “Leave it to Beaver.”
Instead, I’ve shifted my attention to one of three All-Stars spared having to play in that humdrum defeat of the Sid- and Geno-less Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury. He is expected to be back in the cage after getting a much-deserved, and, in hindsight, ego-preserving breather on Thursday.
Is Marc-Andre Fleury the Bruce Arians of the Pittsburgh Penguins? There are certain similarities…
With the possible exceptions of Ben Roethlisberger and Bob Nutting, you’d be hard-pressed to conjure up two more controversial sports figures in this town, athlete or otherwise, than “B.A.” and Flower.
Yes, Fleury, like Arians, has given us his fair share of “what in the world?” moments worthy of fan ridicule this season and in years past. However, both, on multiple occasions, have been easy targets because of sub-standard execution around them. Seemingly, neither man has gotten the credit he deserves, despite playing a pivotal role in the success of his respective team.
Come to think of it, perhaps we’ve taken Flower for granted. Even during the Penguins’ 12-game winning streak, we were so distracted by Sidney Crosby putting on one of the most impressive scoring displays in recent NHL history, we forgot to take some of his spotlight and shine it on Fleury for his steadfast play. Now is as good a time as any to start.
Fleury’s backup, Brent Johnson, is an ideal teammate, and the Penguins are fortunate to have him. Johnny is unassuming, he understands what his job is, and he’s happy just to do it. He was at his best when he needed to be – when Fleury was going through what he called one of the toughest stretches of his career at the beginning of this season. Plus, as I found out recently, he’ll be one of the first to greet you when you step inside his locker room.
Having said that, in the first period of Thursday’s game, Brian Rolston and Nick Palmieri showed us why Johnson is the backup. I’ll just leave it at that.
Johnson’s appearance was preceded by the bright spot of the hockey week, Fleury’s performance in the Pens’ 4-1 win over the banged-up Red Wings at CoONSOL Energy Center Tuesday. Despite the fact Detroit was one more injury away from picking someone from the stands to play goal (hey, it worked for Lester Patrick), the Wings controlled the play for the better part of the second and third periods, when the outcome was still in doubt. Fleury made 36 saves to preserve the win and made two two-goal leads look bigger than they really were.
Those 36 stops were his most in a game this month, though for the Penguins, as a team, their signature moment of the month might be their 8-1 blowout victory at home over the vastly improved Tampa Bay Lightning. People will remember that game for the Penguins’ offense putting it away before the Lightning could get off the bus, but what they might not remember is that Flower turned aside 31 shots and would have had his second shutout if not for an unlucky bounce in the third.
You can’t put the loss to Minnesota squarely on him, because the entire team let down that night. Furthermore, he still made a respectable 33 saves in defeat. It’s just as easy to blame Fleury for that last-minute collapse against the visiting Bruins a couple nights later, but one can attribute that just as much to turnovers, and a lack of poise by his defenders in their own zone. Besides, if not for Fleury making a number of difficult stops through the first two periods, Pittsburgh’s 2-0 lead would have gone up in smoke a lot sooner.
A 20-save performance in a victory over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre looks pedestrian on paper, but for the Penguins to emerge victorious, Fleury had to match Carey Price play for play and survive a frenzied second period that could easily have seen either team kick in the door. The Flower made it possible for the Pens to do the kicking in the third.
He followed it up with 44 saves in an equally important grudge-match win over the Bruins in Boston last weekend. In doing so, Fleury officially one-upped his own season high, a 43-save victory at home over the Ottawa Senators on Black Friday.
In the six January games previously mentioned, plus the Winter Classic, the Penguins are 4-3. Despite their up-and-down play since the holidays, Fleury has posted a 2.15 GAA and .936 save percentage.
Remember that big winning streak I mentioned, the one that largely overlapped with Crosby’s run of 25 games with a point? Lest we forget, Fleury posted a 1.62 GAA in that span, and heaven knows how much ground against Philadelphia the Pens would have to make up without it.
Overall, since his nightmarish start, Fleury has gone 20-5-2 in his last 27 appearances with a 1.91 GAA and .938 save percentage. Even before he turned his game around he was still, from a media perspective, as approachable and diplomatic about his own play as ever.
Thankfully, those days are a fading memory. The Flower is truly back. Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche expressed his goal at the beginning of the season to turn Marc-Andre Fleury into an elite goaltender with elite numbers. Since dropping six of his first seven, he has gradually but nonetheless sharply turned in that direction.
Fleury is tied for fifth overall among starting goaltenders in both wins (21) and GAA (2.26). He enters tonight’s home contest against the Carolina Hurricanes ninth in save percentage at .922 (Carolina’s Cam Ward is tenth). Good enough for you, Coach?
Then again, there’s all that motivational signage in the bowels of the CONSOL Energy Center about “demanding more”…and some fans still do. On Saturday’s edition of “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” (Saturday mornings at 7 a.m. on 93.7 The Fan) I found that at least one or two fans are still wary of another slump or soft goal of cosmic significance. They’re just not willing to give Fleury the plaudits he deserves yet.
With the Penguins forced to play tonight–and at least several games more–through sickeningly coincidental injuries to two of the best players on the planet, there’s no one better to allay their fears than another of the best players on the planet. If the Pens tread water without Crosby and Malkin, Fleury’s sustained top-level play will be a big part of it.
Not all heroes wear masks. But this one does.
For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and also check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on 937thefan.com!