In the three games the Penguins have played so far without both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they’ve sometimes found offense hard to come by.
Last Thursday, Pittsburgh couldn’t get on the scoreboard, losing 2-0 at New Jersey. Tuesday’s home game against the New York Islanders brought only one goal, a net-front rebound from the unlikely source of Craig Adams – his first regular-season, even-strength tally in his two-plus seasons with the team.
But one was all goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury needed. He made Adams’ goal stand up, earning his 18th career shutout and stealing a 1-0 win for the Penguins heading into the All-Star break.
“I don’t try to play better because we lost some scoring guys,” Fleury said with a laugh. “I just try to do my job like I usually do and get some wins, so it’s been fun.”
Fleury is now 23-11-2 on the season. Instead of heading on vacation during the break, he’s headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, as an All-Star – the leading vote-getter among goaltenders, at that. It’s entirely possible he could be looking at his first Vezina Trophy nomination this spring.
None of this is surprising when you consider Fleury’s pedigree. He was the first-overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the goaltender whose stunning, post-to-post save in Game 7 preserved the Penguins’ Stanley Cup win in 2009. He’s the guy who earlier this season, at age 25, became the seventh-youngest netminder to earn 150 career wins.
What makes Fleury’s recent performance so impressive, however, is that he’s not terribly far removed from a 1-6 start that was the worst of his career.
“Amazing how different the questions are now, compared to the first 10 games when everyone wanted to trade him,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who suggested that Fleury may have taken an unfair portion of the blame for his rough start.
“That first 10 games or so, I think we had a lot of new guys in the lineup, we were making a lot of mistakes in front of him, and he was kind of hung out to dry,” Orpik said. “He was the easy guy to use as a scapegoat. But he’s been great for us all year … this is as consistent as he’s been in his whole career.”
Indeed, Fleury has been consistent over a long enough stretch that head coach Dan Bylsma, asked about his netminder’s turnaround, joked, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But the coach can still remember Fleury’s first home win on November 12, a contest he credits with getting him pointed in the right direction.
“Since early on this season, after a few games where he didn’t get the result and wasn’t feeling too good about his game, he certainly has turned it around,” Bylsma said. “Again, we go back to the Tampa Bay game where we come back [home] and the fans cheer him on to a great performance. And, since then, he’s been the backbone of our team.”
Fleury hasn’t always been flashy in coming up with the wins. His shutout against the Isles was just his second of the season, with several more potential goose eggs erased in the final minutes of games.
But his numbers are creeping up into the league leads – he’s fifth in wins and goals-against, sixth in save percentage – and his team is growing increasingly secure in the knowledge that he’ll be there when it counts.
“He’s always had the propensity to make that big save and be that guy for us,” Bylsma said. “But, to be solid in every aspect and real consistent in his play, this is probably the highest level we’ve seen him at for a long period of time.
“Tonight, for good periods of the game, we played some good hockey and pinned them in the offensive zone. But we did make some mistakes, and he was there every time, real strong. We’ve missed giving him the due reward a couple times with the shutout … he deserves [one] going into the All-Star break.”
As pleased as Fleury was to finally blank an opponent – “It seems like the last couple games, I couldn’t get a shutout, so I was hoping to finally get one,” he said – he’s even more gratified to be helping the Penguins as they jockey for playoff position.
“If you look at the standings, it’s really tight, and we need every point we can get,” he said. “Tonight it was a close game, a tough one to win and we played well, so I’m happy.”
And, although Fleury said it will be nice to work in some rest and relaxation around his All-Star duties and recharge for the stretch ahead, his coach wouldn’t mind seeing him get right back between the pipes.
“I just don’t want him to take some time off,” Bylsma said. “He can just keep playing.”