In one of the stranger statistical quirks you’re likely to see, Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has played four NHL games on March 25 and, all four times, he’s shut out his opponent.
Friday, the New Jersey Devils became Fleury’s latest victim as he made 21 saves, then was perfect in the shootout, to lead his club to a 1-0 win.
“It just happened like that,” said Fleury, who had been unaware of the coincidence prior to earning No. 4.
Statistical quirk aside, it’s little coincidence that Fleury’s lucky day falls squarely in the stretch run, when teams are battling for position and fine-tuning their games for the playoffs. And the 26-year-old netminder’s frequent excellence at this time of year is fitting for a big-game goaltender who knows he needs to stand a little taller when the points get harder to come by.
“The past two or three games, it’s been pretty tight, and I think that’s what we’re going to see in the playoffs – not a lot of goals and tight games,” Fleury said.
The win was Pittsburgh’s third in a row, all in shootouts, and Fleury’s second in as many nights.
“Flower was huge all game long,” said forward Jordan Staal. “There wasn’t a ton of shots, and he stayed sharp through the whole game. And obviously, in the shootout, he did a great job of holding them to nothing.”
In the first period, the low shot total was one for the record books. The four combined shots by both teams – three for Pittsburgh, one for New Jersey – were the fewest in Penguins franchise history.
“It’s not really surprising,” Staal said. “It’s a team that plays a tight defense and we didn’t want to give them any opportunities to get on the offense. It’s the way we needed to play against a team like that.”
“It wasn’t the prettiest of first periods, but you have to give credit to both sides in limiting the offense and the time and space out there,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “There just wasn’t a lot of room to make plays or get to the offensive zone and, vice versa, our D did a great job with coming back and limiting them as well.
“I did calculate what three periods of four shots would be, and that has to be breaking a record by a mile.”
But things opened up a little after that, making the game more exciting for the fans, and for the goaltenders.
“I did a little bit in the gym, squats and pushups, just to stay warm” after the opening frame, Fleury said. “In the second, I got a little more shots; it was better.”
And, in the end, Fleury got the satisfaction of outdueling his childhood idol, Martin Brodeur, who was also credited with a shutout for his work in the first 65 minutes. Although the Pittsburgh netminder downplayed the head-to-head battle – “I always think of it more as a duel against their players, not their goalie,” Fleury said – his teammates suspected it was a little more meaningful.
“I think so. He’s a very competitive goalie, he wants to be the best in the league and Brodeur’s a [future] Hall of Famer,” Staal said. “Flower’s up for those games.”
Brodeur’s only blemish on the night came in the shootout when he faced James Neal, Pittsburgh’s third shooter. A 20-goal scorer in each of his first three pro seasons, Neal has hit his share of posts since joining the Penguins last month. Friday, he skated in slowly against Broduer and went right to left, cutting well wide of the net before releasing his shot, which caught the underside of the crossbar and dropped down into the net. It was Neal’s second game-winning shootout goal in the past three games.
“I felt like James Neal hadn’t seen Marty Brodeur a ton and thought that was a good thing,” Bylsma said. “And he sure looked confident and made an unbelievable move.”
“Just trying to get him to bite on a move and he kind of stayed with me the whole way, but I [waited] as long as I could until I saw a little bit of net and got it up,” Neal said. “Those bounces aren’t going the right way sometimes and, tonight, it went in. It was a good feeling.”
The Penguins, too, are feeling good as they continue to keep pace with the rival Philadelphia Flyers. Friday’s win put Pittsburgh just two points behind the Flyers for first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, though Philadelphia has two games in hand.
The teams will go head to head for the second time in less than a week Tuesday at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins beat the Flyers, 2-1, in a shootout Thursday at Philadelphia.
As for Fleury, he’ll have to wait another year to see if his streak of good luck on March 25 continues.
“Knock on wood,” he said, rapping on his dressing room stall. “I hope I forget, because I never thought about it and it went well.”