By Matt Popchock

In more ways than one, Marc-Andre Fleury got what he deserved at Consol Energy Center Sunday afternoon.

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Prior to the Pens’ matinee against the Florida Panthers Fleury received the team MVP award as voted on by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.  He is only the fourth goaltender in franchise history to win the honor and the first since Michel Dion in 1981-82.

Follwing the ceremony the Flower stopped 37 shots and helped the Penguins nail down an NHL-record fourth consecutive shootout win, a game in which he was easily the best player on the ice for the home team.  This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way since the Penguins’ season took a sharp and potentially dangerous U-turn after the holidays.

But with Fleury behind the wheel playing better and more inspiring hockey than he was a year ago at this time, the Penguins have merged back onto the road to the Stanley Cup.  I don’t think it’s crazy to believe he can get the Pens reasonably close, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think he can get them to that destination without running out of gas, regardless of what contributions a (maybe) soon-to-be-healthy Sidney Crosby delivers during the ride.

That’s not to say this black-and-gold machine isn’t in need of the world’s greatest mechanic.  It’s a tad frustrating to see the Penguins fail to put teams away in regulation recently, and tempting fate–to say nothing of my blood pressure–in overtime in the playoffs is not a healthy habit for any team to fall into.  Without Crosby, the Pens’ total offense has fallen from third-best in the NHL to 11th.

Furthermore, the power play remains as torturous to watch as a mid-season Pirate game (and that’s saying something), and the additions of James Neal and Alex Kovalev have not yet helped in the slightest.  Part of the problem is lackluster zone entry and the inability to win faceoffs.  That’s to be expected when you don’t have Sid, who has grown into one of the NHL’s premier faceoff guys, at your disposal.  Plus, it remains to be seen if giving a capable winger like Neal a great player to create with will help, but it sure can’t make things any worse…can it?

Assuming Sid returns for the postseason and looks like Sid, you can definitely pencil the Pittsburgh Penguins into the short list of legitimate Cup contenders.  In the meantime, though, we’ve all heard the adage about what wins championships, so who’s to say the Pens aren’t on that list already?

In 1991 the Penguins won their first-ever Stanley Cup when they crushed the then-Minnesota North Stars 8-0 in Game 6 at Bloomington, which remains the largest margin of victory ever in a Stanley Cup Final game.  In 1992 they clinched their second with a seesaw 6-5 win in old Chicago Stadium in Game 4.

However, when the Pens finally got their third Cup two seasons ago, they didn’t win it with an 8-0 nor a 6-5 decision.  They gutted out Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena 2-1.  They won that game with defense, with attrition, and with top-notch goaltending…which is how Fleury and the Penguins are presently winning.

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Remember: though they did provide key plays at times, neither Sid nor Geno played a dominant role in that series.  The Penguins won because their “energy guys”–the third- and fourth-liners, the role players–outworked Detroit’s role players.  We all know what Max Talbot did.  Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal each provided big goals.  This year those two, along with Pascal Dupuis, Dustin Jeffrey, and others have stepped up at various points in the absence of the Two-Headed Monster.

And all the while Marc-Andre Fleury has looked exactly like the elite goaltender Penguins goaltending instructor Gilles Meloche said he wanted Flower to become prior to the start of the season.  Fleury is not among the NHL’s top five in GAA (8th) or save percentage (tied for 8th), but he is one behind league leader Roberto Luongo and tied with three others in second with 34 wins–the category that matters most.

If you look back at each season following the lockout, the recent crop of Eastern Conference champions are teams that have ultimately ridden a hot goaltender to get them to the Stanley Cup Final.  Carolina’s Cam Ward was that man in 2006, winning the Conn Smythe while hoisting the Cup.  Ray Emery, after stifling the Pens in ’07, helped backstop Ottawa to its first-ever Final.  Last spring Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton, to the presumable chagrin of emotionally torn Pittsburghers, out-shined Jaroslav Halak in the Eastern final.

Even all the way back in ’92, after the second of his Cup wins as a player, an in-his-prime Lemieux, after winning back-to-back playoff MVP honors, testified that goaltender Tom Barrasso should have won the Conn Smythe.

In 2008 the Penguins reached their first Cup Final in 16 years, as Fleury started the playoffs with 12 wins in his first 14 outings and three shutouts.  He didn’t play well in his first Finals, but you don’t go 12-2 in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games and post three shutouts by accident.  The next year Flower held his own against Philly and Washington, two of the most dynamic offensive teams in the NHL, then outclassed Ward and future Hall-of-Famer Chris Osgood in Game 7 to dance with Lord Stanley.

If Fleury continues to look like the goaltender who won that seventh game, it will make a world of difference as the Pens gear up for a fifth straight playoff journey.  No matter what the Pens have–or don’t have–up front, they won’t go anywhere without who’s between the pipes.  His play during the stretch run (8-2-2 and a GAA under 2.00 in March) should give fans a new hope.  It has made the patchwork Penguins stand out in an Eastern Conference playoff picture where the top teams aren’t necessarily dominant, and don’t all have the same stability at Fleury’s position.

Even if the Pens beat the Flyers in their penultimate regular season home game Tuesday, Philly currently holds the tiebreaker for the Atlantic Division lead.  However, the simple fact that the Penguins, after all they’ve been through, are even in contention, is nothing short of extremely impressive.  Thank Marc-Andre Fleury for that.  When the Pens took a small step backward in the middle of this season, Fleury took a step forward.  It might not be enough to net him the Hart Trophy, but I won’t hide my disappointment if he is not at least nominated.

He has helped keep the Penguins comfortably ahead in, if nothing else, the race for home-ice advantage in at least the opening playoff round, and put them on pace for the fewest goals allowed in team history.  In doing so, he has surely silenced the masses, including listeners to our radio station, who buried him in the fall.

Marc-Andre Fleury got what he deserved Sunday.  Now he, just as much as his teammates, deserves unwavering support.

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