For the first time in a long time, there’s not a lot of chatter and it’s likely because Marc-Andre Fleury’s critics and naysayers have been pretty well silenced.
With his team trailing the Rangers 1-0 in their second round best-of-seven series, Fleury took center stage.
On consecutive nights, Fleury stonewalled the Rangers to lead the Penguins to a 2-1 series lead.
Here’s the thing though. Fleury has been the Penguins’ best and most consistent player in the playoffs. Aside from a gaffe in Game 4 against Columbus, Fleury has been rock solid in net.
Furthermore, as the pressure has ramped up since that game, Fleury has allowed only six goals over the following five games.
Not bad for a guy that many wanted run out of town after struggling in the playoffs for two straight years.
Here’s just some of what his teammates thought about his performance over the last two games:
“It’s important. You see a game like tonight, we get some penalties, we get into penalty trouble, had a tough one there drawing blood – four minutes – that’s not easy. He was under a lot of pressure. They had some great chances. It’s not easy on back-to-back nights,” Crosby said. “He was great. He’s been our best player all playoffs long. To win in the playoffs, you need solid goaltending and he’s really given us a chance every night.”
“This is the best I’ve seen him play, the last two nights especially. He’s been really, really good since I’ve been in Pittsburgh. Won a ton of hockey games, tons of highlight reel saves, but the last two nights in particular, how in control he was, just always knew where the puck was, made it look easy, made a big save when he had to when they made a play. He deserved those two shutouts,” Matt Niskanen said.
“He’s solid for us night in, night out,” Robert Bortuzzo said. “He was big for us. Like I said, no surprise in this locker room.”
It’s not like the Rangers haven’t had chances over the last two games either. In addition to the 57 combined shots, the Rangers have been afforded nine power play chances.
Say what you will about the Rangers’ 34 consecutive failed power play opportunities in the playoffs. It’s a jarring statistic, but Fleury was under siege at points last night. The Rangers changed their approach and were getting good looks at the net. Despite that, Fleury remained calm and stood tall.
In addition to playing, well Fleury had some luck on his side last night. The Rangers hit three posts in the game, but you need a little luck in this game.
However, the posts in this series have not been a one-way street. Pittsburgh hit at least two behind Henrik Lundqvist in Game 3.
In Game 1, the Penguins hit a couple more in big moments. For example: Joe Vitale nearly put the game away late in the third period, but rang the shot off the far post.
You know what? It happens. When a goalie is hot, it seems the net becomes smaller and the posts become even bigger.
As for Fleury, he’s just taking it in stride.
“They came out hard, even though they played a lot of games lately. So, came hard, threw pucks at the net, had guys there. Got two [posts] so that was nice,” Fleury said.
Despite his stellar play in the playoffs, there are a decent percentage of people out there that are still waiting for “Playoff Fleury” to reappear.
Again, was Fleury at his best the last two years in the playoffs? No, but did the team show a commitment to playing responsible defense in front of him?
Again, the answer is no.
During this playoff run, the Penguins have been selling out to block shots and clear rebounds when necessary. Take nothing away from what Fleury is doing, but some of the credit for his resurgence goes to his teammates.
The team blocked 13 shots in Game 2 and 17 more last night. There has been a complete shift in mentality in terms of team defense. They’re insulating Fleury. They’re helping to clear rebounds and the forwards have been backchecking at a level not seen in years.
Perhaps this is a team that is starting to believe in itself. Perhaps this is a team that is getting hot at the right time. Maybe, this is a team that is getting used to playing with a mostly healthy roster again.
Who knows at this point, but the team is certainly trending upward and Fleury has been the catalyst. The back-to-back shutouts just cemented that fact.
“It’s good. I don’t think I’ve done it in the season very much, or at all. So, it’s definitely a good feeling two days now, so it’s fun,” Fleury said.
Even his numbers tell the tale.
Despite that wild first round series against Columbus, Fleury has posted a 6-3 record with a 2.22 GAA and a .925 save percentage.
The save percentage ranks third among starting goaltenders left in the playoffs. Only Tuukka Rask (.939) and Corey Crawford (.936) rank higher.
This is a goaltender that is gaining confidence with every save and that is spilling over to the rest of the team.
Obviously, there’s still a lot of hockey to be played and the Penguins aren’t even halfway to their goal of 16 wins. If they are going to get there, Fleury will need to continue to be a steady presence in the net.
To this point, he hasn’t shown any signs that he won’t continue to perform at a high level.
Two big questions coming into this series revolved around Fleury and whether or not Crosby would start scoring.
To me, the Fleury question has been put to bed and Crosby broke through with the first goal of Game 3. Considering their play in the series, I’d only expect more to come from both.
The puck will drop on Game 4 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. With a win, the Penguins would seize control of the series and have a shot to close it out Friday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
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