PITTSBURGH -- Penguins coach Dan Bylsma pulled Marc-Andre Fleury aside before what could be the Penguins' last practice in Pittsburgh this season and tried to boost his goaltender's fragile confidence and calm his jangly nerves.
This isn't on just you, Bylsma told the goaltender who helped carry the Penguins to the Stanley Cup only three years ago. This 3-0 series deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers isn't just the result of your play. All of us are responsible, and it will take all of us to dig ourselves out of this monumental hole.
Fleury appreciated the pep talk, but he also couldn't help but think that if he had been only a little better, the Penguins wouldn't need to win four consecutive games just to keep their season going.
"We've had a little talk this morning, but the bottom line is I still want to make those saves," Fleury said Tuesday. "I was always taught it was a team game -- when we win, when we lose. But at the same time, I don't want to personally do bad."
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That's part of the problem as the Penguins, one of the favorites before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, returned to Philadelphia for Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN). Almost everyone is playing below expectations on a team that has allowed Philadelphia to score 16 goals in the last two games.
Fleury's .798 save percentage is the lowest by a goalie with at least three playoff games in 16 years. His goals-against average of 6.34 is one of the highest in playoff history. But he's not alone in the poor play department. Evgeni Malkin, the NHL scoring champion, has yet to score a goal and has just one even-strength point. Sidney Crosby, the team captain and face of the franchise, has allowed himself to get distracted by skirmishes and retaliatory byplay.
And the Penguins as a team made enough mistakes to last three rounds of the playoffs, much less three games. They have blown leads in every game, they've allowed the Flyers to score on six of their 10 power-play chances, they've given up three shorthanded goals -- the list just goes on.
Still, Fleury can't help but feel personally responsible, believing that if he could have made the save on several of the soft goals he permitted, the series might be different.
"It's frustrating because in the playoffs you want to do well, win those games," Fleury said. "It's tough. We have to put everything together, make sure we're ready for [Wednesday]."
That's why Bylsma made certain to talk one-on-one with his goalie, to make sure he's ready to go for what most definitely is a must-win game.
"I think if you go throughout our room, you are going to have every player feel like they're responsible and haven't been at their best," Bylsma said. "Whether it's situational, making a mistake that's caused a goal or a game or whether it was overall play, I don't think you are going to find one person that thinks otherwise. That's everybody included."
But if the Penguins are to start a comeback -- and only three teams have rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to win -- the coach understands it must start with the goalie.
In 2009, Fleury was at his worst during a 5-0 loss in Detroit in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, which put the Penguins down 3-2 in the series. But Fleury responded to play two exceptional games in a row, allowing just one goal in each game, and the Penguins rallied to win Games 6 and 7. So he has proven he can go from very bad to very good in the span of one playoff game.
"If we are going to scratch back in this series and get back in this thing and start with a win in Philly on Wednesday, it's going to be on the strength of Marc-Andre Fleury in our net," Bylsma said. "There's 18 guys in front of him that really, as a group, haven't been there, to a man, for him."
Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson wouldn't discuss Fleury's situation in specifics, but he said goalies often try to simply the game when they're struggling.
"I think at times a goalie can feel a little bit of weakness, like you're trying to do your best and it's not working," Johnson said. "You're trying to work out the kinks and it still doesn't work. … [So] the best thing to do would be getting back to playing simple. If things aren't working, try blocking the puck instead of trying to make the big save. Just play basic and inside your goal line so you give yourself a chance on everything."
If a goalie does that, it's Johnson's belief that he can solve what often is the most difficult-to-solve aspect of any slump -- the game that goes on inside his head.
"Head games can do so much to your game," Johnson said. "As a goalie, you've come this far, you're in the best league, obviously you're there for a reason. Just get back to the grass roots that got you there, the easy stuff, [don't worry about] trying to do too much out there."
That advice might be fitting for the goalie on a team that is doing so much less than expected.
"I know Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be the guy in our net in the next four games," Bylsma said.