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Fleury impresses in breakthrough season

by Larry Wigge

Marc-Andre Fleury earned praise from friend and foe alike for his 55-save effort in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Now, all the Penguins need from their goalie is more of the same.
Fleury talks with the media on Tuesday
PITTSBURGH -- Sometimes we like to take brilliant performances and wonder how they might be defining moments in a player's career. Marc-Andre Fleury's 55-save effort Monday night in a 4-3 triple-overtime victory Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final was the kind of performance that could set a future standard for the 23-year-old Sorel, Quebec, native.

"He was just making save after save, and obviously you're happy to see him make those saves," Sidney Crosby said. "But you don't want to force him into that position all the time either. He really was the savior for us. They were pressing really hard, especially the third and the first overtime. And time after time he was answering the call."

Greatest goaltending performance you've seen?

"I can say that," said teammate Maxime Talbot.

"Marc-Andre made key save after key save to give us a chance to win," said Penguins coach Michel Therrien. "He was phenomenal."

“He's a good athlete.  He's a good player,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said of Fleury.  “I think both goalies in this series have had their moments. I would have liked to have seen us hit the goalie more. He's a big goalie. Sometimes you try to be too fine. Don't be fine, just shoot it at him. There's a four-by-six there. Hit it as many times as you can, there will be second chances.”

"It was the toughest and longest game I've ever played," Fleury said. "It was just great to win it."

Scant hours before this memorable display, Fleury was talking about how during a period of time when he was out of the lineup. He was sitting next to goalie coach Gilles Meloche watching backup Ty Conklin play, when the proverbial light went on for the former first overall pick in the 2003 Draft.

"Gilles has always told me to let the game come to me. Don't try to do too much. And when I was hurt, it all kind of hit me one night when I was sitting there with him watching Ty. I realized that maybe I was trying to do too much," Fleury told me moments after the huge wave of media had left him alone for a few moments to contemplate the importance of the situation he is in, namely trying to lift the Penguins from a 3-1 deficit.

It's not like this Cup Final was his first big performance. Hardly. But if the Penguins are to rally to get even in this series Wednesday night in Game 6 at Mellon Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio), it will take more of the same from Fleury.

When the 6-foot-2, 180-pound netminder speaks like a learned student of the game, it's a sign of that aptitude, attitude and confidence he gained since a Dec. 6 game at Calgary, when he played just 4:39 of a 3-2 shootout victory before badly spraining an ankle. He was out of action until late February.

"You kind of sit around and wonder what to do with yourself when you're hurt," Fleury said. "I guess I realized you're never too old to learn more about your profession. That's where Gilles and Eddie Johnston are so helpful. They're always around to talk to. And, at this point, I was listening carefully to what they were saying."

"The game kind of slows down for you when you sit upstairs," Meloche said. "I think Marc saw that for maybe the first time."

"Sometimes when you're a kid, you want to do too much," Johnston added. "When he came back from Wilkes-Barre (where he played five AHL games with a 1.42 goals-against average in a rehabilitation assignment) he was like a ...

"He was like a different person,” Johnston said. “When he came back it was like he had something to prove -- and that he was determined to be the No. 1 goalie again."

And the determination paid off. From March 2 through the playoffs, he posted a 22-4-1 record coming into the Cup Final. He had gone 19-0 at home until he lost 2-1 to Detroit in Game 4.

This isn't a reinvention of style or ability like Fleury's Stanley Cup counterpart, Detroit veteran Chris Osgood. It's all just a part of the learning process in the life of a gifted puck-stopper.

There was no doubt in the Penguins mind that Marc-Andre was their guy before they traded up from No. 3 to No. 1 overall in the 2003 draft.

"It was important for us back then to get a goalie -- and there are not too many goalies like Marc-Andre that come along," Meloche said "We were looking to build a championship team from goal on out and we're thrilled at how we did in that deal."

The Penguins have obviously made the most of the riches they've had to choose from in the Entry Draft, especially from 2003 through 2005 when they selected Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby. But, like Meloche said, Pittsburgh was looking to build from the goal on out and Fleury was certainly a very key part of the foundation.

"I know Patrick Roy won four Stanley Cups and all sorts of other awards, and I'd never dream of saying that anyone else is Patrick Roy, but this kid has a chance," Mark Recchi, former Penguins winger now playing in Atlanta, told me earlier this season. "The kid is scary good."

"I've seen a lot of goaltenders in my days and I wouldn't hesitate to say he's got the quickest feet I've ever seen," said Johnston who played in goal in the NHL for 16 seasons and has coached and worked in an executive capacity for another 20 years. "He's a great kid, always has a big smile on his face. Never stops working at his trade, working on his positioning, which is already nearly flawless. Mentally, he's strong. He'll give up a goal and lose the heartbreak of giving up that goal in and instant and be ready for the next shot.

"But what I like about him most is his vision. He's like a forward who can see something happening a play or two before it actually happens. And it's more than just the vision of any old forward. It's like the vision that just handful of great players might have like a Mario Lemieux or a Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg."

Fleury has come a long way from the days in Sorel, a quaint town of 23,000 about an hour north of Montreal, where he first donned the goalie pads when he was 5-years-old and stopped shots in his driveway from his aunt/babysitter with the garage door as his backstop in the house that his dad, Andre, who is a carpenter, built. One year later, he was playing in an organized hockey league.

"I liked the pads and the mask and liked Patrick Roy. I spent a couple of years as a catcher in baseball, too," Fleury told me on draft day in 2003. "I remember meeting Patrick at one of (goaltending consultant) Francois Allaire's schools and him telling me that playing goal was like calling pitches in baseball. As a catcher, you would call pitches high, low and either inside or outside, depending on the situation. As a goalie, the situation dictates where the puck will be coming from."

While center Eric Staal, picked second in the 2003 draft by Carolina, blossomed into a young star in his second NHL season and so many others -- Dion Phaneuf, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Nathan Horton, Tomas Vanek, Milan Michalek, Corey Perry, Zach Parise, Brent Burns, Nikolai Zherdev, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ryan Suter -- made an impact a little sooner than Fleury, there was really never a doubt about this skinny kid who went 4-14-2  and 13-27-6 in his first two seasons in the NHL.

Fleury is a bright kid, with an even brighter future. He's become a happy-go-lucky young man who loves Jim Carrey movies and can learn to laugh at some of the bad goals he gives up -- only after he irons out what he did wrong first.

"When you're young, at some point you want to grow up to be just like your dad," Fleury said. "Well, I was all thumbs when I used by dad's tools. My mom thought I might wear a shirt and tie and work in an office for a living."

But he suddenly found his niche as a goaltender, where he has the same blue-collar work ethic that his dad showed him at an early age.

"And now my hands," said Fleury, with a smile on his face. "Well ... uh ... they aren't so bad after all."

For three overtimes and hours on the ice in Game 5, Marc-Andre Fleury used those talented hands, quick legs ... everything to keep Pittsburgh in the series.

And all the Penguins will ask of him in Game 6 is more of the same.

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