The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury had a career-best season with 42 wins, just one shy of most in the NHL. He’s the owner of a Stanley Cup ring, robbing the Detroit Red Wings in the final seconds of Game 7 in 2009 to preserve his team’s place in hockey history.
Outside of Pittsburgh, however, the 27-year-old they call “Flower” doesn’t often get mentioned among the NHL’s elite netminders. And, in the first few games of this first-round playoff series between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, he didn’t particularly look like one.
But things started to change for Fleury Wednesday in Philadelphia, when he showed signs of regaining his confidence as the Penguins romped to a 10-3 win to stave off elimination in Game 4. And, back home in Pittsburgh for Friday’s Game 5, he was the difference between the Penguins starting an early, disappointing offseason and living to fight another day.
On the backs of Fleury and a gritty, energetic third line centered by Jordan Staal, the Penguins pulled out a second consecutive win, edging the Flyers, 3-2, and sending the series back east for Game 6 Sunday.
Both of Philadelphia’s goals came in the first period on its lethal power play, which has now racked up 11 goals in the series. But Pittsburgh held the Flyers without an even-strength goal for the second consecutive game, and the Penguins’ penalty kill came through when it mattered most – in the second and third periods as they held that slender, one-goal lead.
And their best penalty killer was the man between the pipes, who turned aside 24 of the 26 shots he faced, including 14 in a third period where the ice was largely tilted in the Flyers’ favor. Seven of those stops came on a Flyers power play at 7:37 of the final frame that might have been the turning point of the game.
“He was on, and he made some huge ones,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “It’s this time of year when you need those, and he came up big for us.”
“Flower played an unbelievable game,” Staal said. “Our bench has always been confident in him, and he came up with a huge effort for our team. He was on the ball, you could tell right away, and it’s a good feeling when you have a guy with that talent backing you up. It makes you feel you can play a lot more confident.”
Staal is playing with plenty of confidence. With a goal in Game 5, he now has six in the playoffs to lead the NHL. His line also combined on what proved to be the game-winning goal, with Staal and Matt Cooke setting up Tyler Kennedy’s second-period blast.
“A big goal for us; the old boy knows how to shoot,” Staal said. “That’s what you need in the playoffs; you need the whole team. As cliché as it sounds, you need everyone on board and playing their best if you want to win. A lot of guys in the last few games have really stepped up for our team.”
The 3-2 final was the lowest score so far in a series that set an NHL record with 45 combined goals through its first four games. And, in the waning minutes of the contest, the Penguins transitioned into their most defensive-minded posture yet, protecting the one-goal lead by keeping things simple and chipping pucks out of danger.
“I think, in the first few games, we’ve been playing to try to outscore the other team,” Staal said. “[Tonight] we knew we were up and were just trying to play as solid of a game as we could. I don’t think we went back into a [defensive] shell, but we were definitely more aware of their speed.”
The Penguins think they can do an even better job of taking the burden off of their defense and goaltender, as Game 5 saw the Flyers get plenty of sustained offensive pressure in the final 10 minutes as they tried frantically to tie it up.
“I think we’re at our best when we’re attacking,” said Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette. “We’d like to play all 60 minutes like that, but sometimes the opponent dictates [that] as well.”
“[In Games] 1, 2 and 3, we had spurts when we were playing good, but it wasn’t 60 minutes,” Cooke said. “I don’t think tonight was 60 minutes; I think we can push a little harder. They pushed hard the last 10 minutes, and we need to push back a little to play in the offensive zone and not spend so much time in their end.”
Because they started the series by putting themselves in an 0-3 hole, the Penguins continue to face elimination in every game. Given that, they said, they can’t afford to think about whether the momentum has started to shift in their favor.
“We’re in the same situation going to Philadelphia,” Crosby said. “Our story doesn’t change; it’s still desperation mode.”
“It’s still do or die for us,” Staal said. “It’s our mentality of playing it one game at a time, just five minutes at a time. Just keep chipping away.”
With Fleury returning to form, they’ve got a better chance of doing just that.
“He won them the game,” the Flyers’ Scott Hartnell said. “Plain and simple.”