For beleaguered Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the word "meltdown" has become virtually synonymous with the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The phrase was already making the rounds to describe Fleury's postseason play before the top-seeded Penguins blew a 3-0 lead in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. By the time that game ended, with Fleury mishandling a puck behind his own net to gift Columbus the tying goal in the final minute of the third period and whiffing on Nick Foligno's long, dipping shot 2:49 into overtime, the discussions about Fleury's ghosts of playoffs past only intensified.
Fleury has posted a sub-.900 save percentage in four straight postseasons since hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2009 and his last two playoff runs ended with spectacular flameouts, including serving as the backup to Tomas Vokoun last spring after Fleury struggled mightily in the first round against the New York Islanders.
Before lumping all of Fleury's recent playoff collapses into the same messy pile of ill-timed, odd-looking goals, it is worth understanding the style changes he made this season to avoid a repeat of how the last two seasons ended. In doing so, the differences, and some similarities, between Fleury's past "meltdowns" and what has happened so far against Columbus should be made clearer.
If there was a defining characteristic of Fleury's past two playoff collapses, it was aggressive positioning leading to extra movement. The two often go hand in hand because the further away from the net a goalie starts on a play, the more he has to move laterally to stay centered on the goal and the more distance he has to travel to recover to the goal posts as the play unfolds.
For Fleury, this manifested itself in several ways, leading to ugly-looking goals.
On rushes by the opposition, Fleury challenged beyond the top of his crease and his use of short shuffles to track laterally from a narrow stance sometimes caught him moving as a shot was taken. The result all too often saw Fleury stuck up on his skates and appear frozen as the shot passed.
It also left Fleury unable to get back to his post if a shot went wide and bounced off the end boards, or a rebound spilled back to his side. He also had a tendency to make his recovery moves to a spot outside of his posts and the result was a lot of how-did-that-go-in bounces from bad angles. By moving around outside of his crease rather than staying inside and sealing the posts, Fleury left himself prone to unsightly ricochet goals off his body.
Compounding these problems was Fleury's tendency to get more aggressive if things went wrong, chasing the puck rather than concentrating on his next save position, leaving himself even more distance to recover in less time. The result often left him looking frantic.
It's here that Fleury's overaggressive positioning used to show up more in terms of being outside the left and right edges of his crease, not just on top of it.
In addition to the scrambling, bad-angle goals, it left Fleury with too much space to cover on cross-ice passes off the rush and while the Penguins were killing penalties. The only thing more shocking than the number of times the Penguins allowed these lateral passes through, especially against the Philadelphia Flyers power play in the 2012 playoffs, was Fleury's inability to get all the way across despite his explosive pushes.
When he did get across, it was usually on a flat path across his crease instead of with good hip rotation and a push back to the far post, leaving him not square and often fully extended, opening holes for pucks under and through him. Even when he was able to get back and forth tracking passes on his skates, he'd often get caught in motion rather than being set when the shot was released.
Mike Bales arrived last summer as the Penguins goalie coach and he brought a plan to reel in Fleury's initial depth and give him more contained positioning staples which would hopefully become helpful at the first sign of adversity.
Fleury now plays rush chances "heels out," meaning the back of his skates are still touching or are barely outside the top of the crease. His depth on end-zone play is contained within the blue ice, often as much as a couple of feet below the top of the crease, and almost never beyond the outside edges of it.
This serves several benefits, including the ability to move less and still beat lateral passes with shorter, quicker pushes. This allows Fleury to get set for either a shot or another pass. He also has more time to rotate his hips properly before driving back to the inside of his posts, his new default target under Bales. He can now travel laterally while still staying square to the next shot, first establishing his new angle and then coming out and adding required depth if there is still time.
Fleury gets caught outside of his posts far less often now. He also added a new technique to seal the posts off against attacks from along or below the goal line.
Instead of his old preference for VH (the V stands for "vertical" because the short-side pad is upright against the post and the H is for "horizontal" as the back pad is down on the ice parallel to the goal line), Fleury now uses a technique called "Reverse" for most post-integration plays.
With the Reverse, the lead pad is along the ice against the inside of post, with the torso and shoulders leaning into the iron. The back pad is just off the ice along the goal line and the back skate is pushing the body into that post seal. In addition to being a less locked up, "blocking" technique than VH, the Reverse keeps more of Fleury's body between the posts rather than right on, and even outside, the post, providing more coverage even before pushing off on passes into the middle or across.
Add it all up and Fleury evolved into a more controlled game this season.
SAME OLD FLEURY?
The new style doesn't change everything, though.
Fleury can still be aggressive, whether coming out to play a puck his coach said he should leave, like on the tying goal in Game 4, or throwing out a poke check on breakaways. There is also still a tendency to default to blocking saves in situations where his reactive game should allow him to make more controlled stops, sometimes leading to unmanageable rebounds and more desperate recoveries.
As for his new positioning in these playoffs, so far he's stuck with the game plan.
There were a couple of signs of the old Fleury in Game 3, when he got caught shuffling slightly outside the left edge of his crease and on his feet on a Jack Skille rush shot, delaying his drop enough that he was left in more of a blocking mode and coughed up a slot rebound that Boone Jenner put back between his legs. But Fleury's real mistake was arguably getting back up at all after the first save instead of staying down and keeping the hole closed so it could not be exploited by Jenner.
When Jack Johnson beat him on a rebound off a shot from below the goal line less than two minutes later, making it two goals on three shots in just 3:18 to start the game, the national commentary included two pointed references to Fleury being in the midst of a "meltdown" as coach Dan Bylsma called timeout.
On the goal itself, Fleury used his Reverse technique on the short-side post, but reached and poked needlessly at the sharp-angle attempt with his blocker and stick, slightly delaying his upper-body rotation back into the middle for Johnson's wide-open attempt in the right slot. It was a combination of the improved new positioning and technique, which still left him in position to make the save that was undermined somewhat by that old aggressive nature.
Was it a meltdown? Not to the extent of year's past.
Fleury did drift slightly outside the left edge of his crease again on a rush chance which resulted in a back-door deflection goal for Cam Atkinson to make it 3-1 early in the third period, but it's hard to make a case for him stopping that goal in either style. In between those goals, Fleury kept the Penguins alive with several good stops with his more conservative positioning, including a couple of chances on a power play that would have been difficult for him to stop in the past two playoffs.
This all brings us back to Game 4.
Bylsma would have preferred Fleury didn't play the puck behind his net in the last minute of regulation and, dipping or not, he needs to make the overtime save from 50 feet.
Unlike past playoffs, however, he wasn't caught on his feet shuffling well outside the blue ice and unable to react at all as the puck went by him. This time, Fleury was set, with his heels at the edge of the blue ice as he has been all season. But he whiffed on a knuckler and the "meltdown" was back on, with understandable questions about his mindset after a soft goal quickly followed that poor decision.
How he reacts to start Game 5 on Saturday may provide a better indication if it's true. So far, Fleury has stuck with the new system, straying slightly a couple of times but never reverting totally back to the panicked, overaggressive style of playoffs past.
Whether or not it will be enough to overcome some of the other tendencies which remain in Fleury's game is still to be seen.