– This was the Marc-Andre Fleury
the Pittsburgh Penguins
expected, the Fleury they had to have as they began a playoff series without Sidney Crosby
for the first time.
The same Fleury who was easily the Penguins' MVP during a regular season in which he carried a team that lost its two big stars to injuries months ago. The same Fleury who was good enough to win the Stanley Cup two years ago.
All Fleury needed was a little help from a couple of playoff-experienced vets who had something to prove during the most important time of the season.
Alex Kovalev and Arron Asham
helped make up for disappointing regular seasons for Pittsburgh by scoring 18 seconds apart in the third period to break up a goaltenders' duel, and the Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning
3-0 on Wednesday night in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Fleury followed up the best regular season of his career with a solid and, at times, superb night, making 32 saves in the first playoff game played at Consol Energy Center. He made a succession of big saves, including a stop on a shot Vincent Lecavalier
skillfully created early in the second period by putting his stick between his own skates.
"Fleury was outstanding," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "I just saw the replay and I can't believe some of the saves he made. … He's an incredible goalie who's won the Stanley Cup."
Game 2 will be Friday night in Pittsburgh, when the Lightning hope some of the nine players who are making their playoff debuts will be a little less nervous and a little more productive.
"For a lot of us, that was our first experience, we've gone through it now and we know what to expect in Game 2," said Steven Stamkos
, who was held to a single shot following his 91-point season. "It's one game -- it's not the end of the world."
Pittsburgh barely missed winning the Atlantic Division despite playing half the season without Crosby, thriving in coach Dan Bylsma's demanding system in which every player is expected to be defensively responsible.
That system worked for perfection as, for the first time since Crosby arrived in 2005 as one of the most anticipated draft picks in NHL history, the Penguins won a playoff game without No. 87 -- even if it took them 46 minutes-plus to find the net in their first playoff game since a Game 7 loss to Montreal last May in which Fleury was pulled.
"It's a system any good forward likes to play. It's pursue the puck, it's a lot of pressure, it's always moving forward," Kovalev said. "You can't ask for a better system."
Kovalev, who scored only twice in 20 games after being picked up by General Manager Ray Shero close to the trading deadline, broke the scoreless tie at 6:05 of the third.
After being dumped in the corner by defenseman Pavel Kubina
, Kovalev picked himself up and skated toward the goal line as Paul Martin
kept the puck in the offensive zone. James Neal
faked a slap shot from the left point, only to throw a hard pass to Kovalev, whose one-timer from the bottom of the right circle beat Dwayne Roloson
to the glove side.
Kovalev's goal was his 45th in 117 career playoff games.
"He's always had the ability to be a factor in the playoffs, a playoff performer, so it wasn't too big a surprise to see him get that opportunity," Bylsma said.
Before the Lightning could regroup, Asham made it 2-0 with his first goal since Jan. 6.
Asham, coming off an unproductive and injury-interrupted regular season, skated with speed from the neutral zone and faked a slap shot from the top of the right circle. Dragging the puck with him behind the net, he eluded Eric Brewer
to score on a wraparound after missing his initial attempt. Asham ended the season with only 5 goals in 44 games.
He had 4 goals in 23 playoff games last spring as the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Final.
"I came so close last year, losing in the Final was disappointing," he said. "I thought about that all summer. I want to win the Cup."
Shero expected Kovalev and Asham to be big additions this season. He just didn't know it would take this long.
finished it off by scoring into an empty net with 42 seconds remaining. Defenseman Brooks Orpik
assisted on both of Pittsburgh's final two goals.
Fleury did the rest in his fifth career playoff shutout, and certainly one of his best.
"I've got a great group of defensemen, and all I've got to worry about is stopping the puck," Fleury said.
If only it were that easy.
Pittsburgh's scoring dropped an average of one goal per game after Crosby left the lineup Jan. 6, yet the Penguins still won 49 games and accumulated 106 points – both among the high marks in franchise history – despite playing half the season without their biggest star. Fleury was the primary reason why.
"Flower kept us in it – he's been doing that all year for us," Asham said.
Pittsburgh's power play, the NHL's worst without Crosby, was 0 for 6 – but all that time Tampa Bay spent killing penalties meant far less ice time than Boucher wanted for Stamkos, Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis
. Lecavalier took four shots, St. Louis two.
"A lot of offensive players didn't get on the ice much," Boucher said. "It kills your momentum."
Crosby, out since Jan. 6 with a concussion, skated with his teammates Wednesday morning, but still hasn't been cleared for contact work. Several Lightning players said they wouldn't be surprised if he played in the series, yet the Penguins don't appear optimistic that he might return anytime soon.
Pittsburgh also doesn't have former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin
, the one-time NHL scoring champion who had season-ending knee surgery in early February,
Crosby wore a headset while sitting in a private box next to assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald and could be seen making comments.