Fleury Quietly Gives Pens a Chance to Win

Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t near the top of the NHL leaders in goals-against average this season. Or save percentage, for that matter. Or shutouts.

But there’s one statistical category where Fleury’s elite status becomes clear – and it’s the only one he and his teammates care about. With Monday’s 2-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, Fleury earned his 35th win of the season, putting him second only to Pekka Rinne of Nashville (36).

The 27-year-old’s lack of gaudy stats doesn’t net him much in the way of fanfare or accolades. His name is rarely in the conversation of possible finalists for this year’s Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender. But what Fleury does is consistently put his club in a position to win hockey games – which, with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, Pittsburgh has been doing quite a lot.

“You can talk about him every single night; he’s been great all season long and he’s the reason why we’re up there in the standings,” said defenseman Zbynek Michlaek. “You can rely on him every single night to make those big saves for us. [Phoenix] came at us hard and he made so many unbelievable saves where we thought it would be impossible, but he somehow did.”

In a season where the Penguins have endured a seemingly endless parade of injuries to both prominent and role players, Fleury has been a rock. He’s rarely taken a night off, playing in 55 of Pittsburgh’s 65 contests, in part due to the good fortune of staying healthy, a tough season for backup Brent Johnson, and Fleury’s own desire to carry the lion’s share of goaltending duties.

Fleury is 16-2-1 in his last 19 starts, dating back to January 13 in Florida, and seems to be playing with a new level of confidence, displaying a mix of natural athleticism and agility, assertiveness in handling the puck and challenging shooters, and solid positional play.

“Anytime you see a goalie out playing the puck as much as he does and sliding out to make the saves, he’s confident; he’s got trust in himself,” said forward Matt Cooke. “And we definitely do.”

“He was our best player tonight, and I thought the Coyotes played a really hard and fast game against us and had a number of great opportunities, which Marc-Andre was extremely strong on,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “They went east-west a lot, both five-on-five and on their power play, and he had to come across, and he makes it look pretty easy with his mobility and then being solid and square to the shooter. And, when he needed to, he had a big save in him tonight as well.

“He’s played a lot of games for us, and the consistency with which he’s played has probably been the biggest thing. Every night, what he’s given our team … and, tonight, he was probably the difference in the game.”

With the 2009 Stanley Cup already to his credit, 2011-12 has seen Fleury further establish his place in Penguins franchise history. In February, he earned his 22nd career shutout to tie Tom Barrasso’s franchise record, taking only 418 games to reach that milestone compared to Barrasso’s 438. He also has a good chance to tie Barrasso’s franchise record of 226, needing just seven more wins in Pittsburgh’s final 17 games.

And the best may be yet to come for Fleury and the Penguins. With six consecutive wins – the longest active streak in the NHL – the team has just gotten stronger as the games get bigger, and so has its netminder, who has stopped 163 of 168 shots in his last five starts for a .970 save percentage.

That’s nothing new for Fleury, who has a track record of stepping up down the stretch. Since 2006-07, Fleury has gone 41-11-8 in the month of March.

“We’ve been winning, so that’s what matters,” Fleury said. “Every night, I just try to give the team a chance to win the game. They’ve been playing great hockey in front of me, blocking a lot of shots and helping out a lot.

“Together, we’re doing all right.”

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