NEWARK -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL, and many pundits have anointed them as one of the favorites to claim the Stanley Cup.
There are plenty of reasons for this kind of optimism. Evgeni Malkin is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as League MVP. The team won nine games in a row and had the fourth-most points in the NHL -- and that was before Sidney Crosby returned after missing 3 1/2 months and No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang came back after missing five games. Both were key contributors in the Penguins' 10th straight win -- a 5-2 victory against the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers in New York on Thursday.
If there is one guy who probably isn't getting enough of the credit for the march of the Penguins, it is the one star on the team who hasn't missed a lot of time because of injury -- goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
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"Of all of our 'big stars' -- they've all missed significant time with injuries except for him. He's been the guy who has been there all the time."
Crosby missed the second half of last season and missed all but eight games before returning Thursday because of symptoms stemming from a concussion. Malkin missed the second half of last season with a knee injury. Jordan Staal missed the first half of last season and 20 games this season with various injuries.
But the Penguins have remained among the League's elite even without Crosby and at times Malkin, because the team has elite depth, elite coaching and maybe most of all because of Fleury. He was outstanding last season, posting a goals against average of 2.15 or below in four of the final five full months of the season.
This season, he might be even better. Fleury entered the weekend -- a Saturday visit to New Jersey and a Sunday game at Philadelphia (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, NHLN-Canada) second to Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 38 wins, and his 2.26 goals-against average would be the best of an already-distinguished career.
"I think he hasn't got a whole lot of credit a lot of years," Staal said. "This year again -- he's been our rock. He's made so many big saves at the right times. He's done so many good things. People are noticing it, but it is hard to when you have a lot of stars on the team, I guess."
Added Fleury (after knocking on the wood next to his stall in the visiting dressing room at Prudential Center): "I don't know. Right now we're winning and we're getting points and trying to catch the Rangers. As a team we're playing good and it helps me a lot when guys are playing so good in front of me. Just hopefully we can keep this roll going and continue playing well."
Fleury has always been there for this generation of Penguins, and he's always been just off-center while Crosby, Malkin and even Letang and Staal absorbed more of the spotlight. Drafting Fleury first overall in 2003 was really the beginning of Pittsburgh's rebuild, though adding Malkin and Crosby in the next two years certainly galvanized it.
He was there in Pittsburgh in 2003, trying to keep an overmatched club in games while playing goal in the world's best league before his 19th birthday. Fleury has now posted five seasons with at least 35 victories, and his career-high of 40 is clearly in jeopardy.
Goalie - PIT
GAA: 2.26 | SVP: 0.917
GAA: 2.26 | SVP: 0.917
Added Staal: "I don't know if he's changed a whole lot, but he's kind of got the perfect demeanor for a goalie. He works so hard, but he's so laid back for the most part. Nothing really seems to bother him much. He's still hard on himself when he gets scored on, but he's a guy who lets it go and focuses on trying to stop the next one."
Martin Brodeur holds the NHL record for wins in a career with 651 (and counting). He had 244 victories when he turned 28 years old on May 6, 1999. Fleury collected career win No. 222 on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, and he doesn't turn 28 until Nov. 28.
Given the expectation that Pittsburgh will be a contender for years to come, and that goaltenders have more chances to collect wins now than previous eras because of the shootout, it isn't that far-fetched to think Fleury could some day challenge Brodeur's record.
Brodeur has also won the Cup three times in his career, and No. 2 came about a month after his 28th birthday. The Penguins would like to claim Lord Stanley's chalice for a second time since Fleury, Crosby, Malkin et all arrived in the Steel City, and given their recent form and suddenly optimal health that could be a possibility in a few months.
"That's our goal, definitely," Fleury said. "We all want to get there. It is still a long ways away though. There are a lot of games left to be played and the standings are so close. I think everyone feels comfortable with our team and happy to have everyone back in the lineup."