Settling in at his dressing room stall to answer reporters’ questions after a 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Marc-Andre Fleury’s trademark grin was back.
Friday’s contest felt like a prime opportunity for the Penguins’ franchise goaltender to take the first step in turning around his season-long slump, one he’s admitted has been the most frustrating of his career. Backup Brent Johnson was coming off a loss two nights earlier that featured a stunning third-period collapse in which the Penguins surrendered five goals, giving Fleury the opportunity.
And, though they’d still have to face offensive juggernauts Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, Fleury and the Penguins caught a break the night before when Lightning captain Vinnie Lecavalier broke his hand in Washington.
The sellout crowd of 18,275 at CONSOL Energy Center seemed ready to will their Stanley Cup-winning netminder to victory, with chants of “Fleury” preceding the national anthem.
“It’s been tough, and I hadn’t won at home, either,” Fleury said. “It was great coming in – you never know how [the crowd] is going to be, and to walk in the building, skate on the ice and have them cheer for me already, that’s a confidence booster.”
And, after not getting much work to start the period, Fleury got the confidence-boosting sequence he needed about midway through the frame, when he stopped an initial shot, then made a diving stop on the rebound attempt by St. Louis. The fans rose to their feet and resumed chanting the goalie’s name.
“The crowd tonight was behind me right from the start,” Fleury said. “It was a good feeling. It was awesome.”
That’s also about the time forward Max Talbot got the feeling that this night was going to be different for his good friend Fleury – who, at age 25, became the seventh-youngest goaltender to earn 150 career wins.
“Looking at him tonight,” Talbot said, “there was absolutely no doubt from us that he was going to make the stops.”
“You could tell [the fans] were standing in the goal with him, and he played that way,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “He played great tonight, had some big saves, stayed tall. That was a big game for Marc.”
Giving Fleury all the offensive support he needed were Pascal Dupuis and Alex Goligoski, who scored just 27 seconds apart midway through the second period.
Things got tense early in the third when Pittsburgh got into 5-on-3 trouble twice in short order, with Stamkos getting his team on the board early in the first two-man advantage with a blast from the left circle, cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to 2-1. But Fleury and his teammates were able to kill the rest – including another rocket from Stamkos, then a rebound that trickled dangerously close to the goal line before defenseman Brooks Orpik cleared it away.
“It’s not the first time this year our penalty killers have really won us a game with their attitude and mindset going over the boards,” Bylsma said.
“They’ve got good players out there, and a lot of room, a lot of time to shoot,” said Fleury. “They scored on the first one but I knew, with the guys we have and how they work, we could get out of it, and we did. And we got some big goals after that.”
None was bigger than shortly after those big kills, when Talbot collected a loose puck along the boards, broke up ice with winger Craig Adams and fired it past Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith, making the score 3-1 and giving the Penguins room to breathe. The goal was reminiscent of one he scored on Detroit’s Chris Osgood in June 2009 to win the Stanley Cup.
“A lot of guys on the bench, when I came back, told me they saw that goal before somewhere,” Talbot said. “I kind of blacked out more than took a look; that’s what happens sometimes. I’m saying that as a joke but, at the same time, it’s just when you feel it and you’re just more loose, you don’t think too much, you just make the play. That’s when I play my best hockey.”
A lot of Penguins played their best hockey Friday, with responsible defense that let up only 16 shots on the night, opportunistic offense and, finally, the full, 60-minute effort that had been eluding them.
“A patient game; there weren’t a lot of chances,” Bylsma said. “It potentially had the ability to be a frustrating game, and we stayed with it, stayed in the game and every guy was a contributor. Our defense played a very good game, both defending and with the way they managed the puck. That is how we need to play and want to play.”
“The last four games, I feel, we’ve been playing pretty strong. We’ve been playing better hockey,” Talbot said. “And tonight was kind of following the process of what we’ve been doing. It was a big effort from everyone; a lot of good things came out of this game tonight.”
Now the Penguins will see if they can keep the momentum going Saturday in Atlanta, as they attempt to string back-to-back wins together for the first time since a four-game winning streak in mid-October.
“[Tonight] feels good, definitely, it’s a win, but it’s a long season,” Fleury said. “I think we’ve got to get a couple wins together to get rolling, put [up] some points and get up there in the standings. That’s our goal.”
As for whether Fleury will get the opportunity to build on his season-best performance, however, Bylsma wasn’t saying.
“I haven’t told my goalies who’s going to go yet, so I’m not going to tell you here first,” Bylsma said. “It’d be nice to see Flower play that way again, wouldn’t it?”