Marc-Andre Fleury knows he’ll have to wait until spring for the chance to truly redeem himself in the eyes of his doubters. Until then, however, all the Pittsburgh Penguins netminder is doing is winning.
With Saturday’s 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, Fleury notched his league-leading 18th victory. In 28 games played, he’s earned a 2.01 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and is tied for the league lead with three shutouts.
Fleury’s teammates made him work for the win Saturday, giving up 39 shots to a team typically thought of as more defensive-minded. The Penguins jumped out to an unlikely 3-0 lead by the 15-minute mark of the first period, then got away from their game plan for the final two frames, where they were outshot 32-11.
“We took our foot off the pedal in terms of how we play and execute with the puck [and were] a little careless in how we managed the puck,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “They put a lot of pucks behind our defense, they dumped a lot of pucks and they came on the forecheck over and over again, and that resulted in some offensive zone time that they carried.”
“We started the game so well, but we knew they just weren’t going to quit [with] a lot of time to play,” Fleury said. “They came out hard in the second, a lot of guys to the net, just shooting pucks and going for rebounds, tips and screens. Even though they scored two goals, I thought we didn’t panic, just focused on the game and it ended up pretty well.”
After those two goals – which came in a 56-second span early in the second – Fleury turned in a stellar performance, shutting down the Devils on first attempts, rebounds, breakaways and odd-man rushes to earn the game’s No. 1 star.
“I think after [the first] they dominate the shots, they dominate the opportunities,” Bylsma said. “They certainly had some very good, grade-A opportunities that we gave up. Marc-Andre had to make a handful of excellent saves, not to mention the end of the game where there were flurries of pucks [to] the net and pucks to the blue paint and he had to be strong around the crease.”
“We’ve got to play a more complete game than that,” said forward Jayson Megna, who scored what ended up being the game-winning goal. “Flower played another great game and bailed us out there. I think [he] stole that one for us.”
Coming up big is what the 29-year-old goaltender has been doing most of the season for the Penguins, who sit second in the East with 45 points, one behind the Boston Bruins.
With rookie backup Jeff Zatkoff taking the place of veteran Tomas Vokoun so far this year – out with blood clots, Vokoun has not yet decided if he’ll play hockey again – Fleury has started 28 of the Penguins’ 33 games, a number matched only by San Jose’s Antti Niemi and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo.
Fleury, who likes to carry the lion’s share of the workload, isn’t concerned about getting tired. “I think the schedule hasn’t been too crazy; it’s been all right,” he said. But – particularly in the long-term absence of three of Pittsburgh’s top four defensemen in Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi – the team sticking to its game plan and giving Fleury the occasional easier night would go a long way.
“He talks a lot about both scenarios; I think there are games where he doesn’t get a ton [of work] and, in a situation like tonight in the second and third periods, there’s a lot of action,” Bylsma said. “I think he’s going to tell you that it’s nice to get a lot of shots, flurries and action at his net. But I think he’d just as soon not have some of the grade-A quality [chances] that he had to come up with big saves [on] at key points in the game, especially in the third period.”