PITTSBURGH (AP) -To NHL scoring champion Sidney Crosby, it's no coincidence the Pittsburgh Penguins became very good in the same season that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury did.
Asked how the Penguins made such a dramatic improvement in only a year's time - from 22 victories a season ago to 47 this season - the first name Crosby mentioned was Fleury's.
Crosby could have pointed to rookie Evgeni Malkin and his 85 points. Or Jordan Staal's 29 goals and the 18-year-old rookie's strong play on the penalty-killing unit. Or Sergei Gonchar and his 67-point season, the second-best among NHL defensemen.
Instead, Crosby and the Penguins understand that how well the 22-year-old Fleury plays in their first-round series against Ottawa may determine if they reach the second round. The series begins Wednesday night in Ottawa.
"Starting in goal, I think you have to have a great goalie in order to be successful, and Marc has really done a good job," Crosby said.
Fleury was the first in the Penguins' series of No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks who have developed into stars in a relatively short time - Crosby, Malkin and Staal would follow. Fleury became their starting goalie at age 18 and, understandably, struggled on bad teams while going 4-14-2 in 2003-04 and 13-27-6 last season.
This season, Fleury has been in net for 40 of the Penguins' 47 wins, tying him for third in NHL goalie victories behind New Jersey's Martin Brodeur (48) and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo (47). Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff also won 40.
"He's playing really well lately. That's a great sign for him, it's a great sign for our hockey team," coach Michel Therrien said. "You want to make sure your goalie the last few games, the way he's playing, you want to try to bring that to the playoffs. Fleury is probably at his best right now, so that's why we're really optimistic about the way he's going to perform."
Fleury is 9-2-1 in his last dozen starts, allowing two goals or fewer six times. His strong play has been helped by the Penguins' growing familiarity and success with the defensive system installed by Therrien when he took over in December 2005. The Penguins' 2.93 goals-against average is down nearly a goal per game from their 3.78 of last season.
"All the guys in here put pressure on themselves to be responsible and to work hard," Crosby said. "We do have talent, but I think our work ethic is our strength as a group, and our chemistry. I think that's what's gotten us to this point."
Fleury had a few rough spots in his breakthrough season. He was benched for two games in February after allowing six goals against the Islanders, but he has lost only three times in regulation during his last 16 starts. He also occasionally fails to smother rebounds, which can lead to second-chance scoring opportunities.
Fleury's backup, Jocelyn Thibault, also played effectively during the second half of the season - his 2.83 goals-against average in 22 games was identical to Fleury's in 67 games. However, Thibault's 7-8-2 record doesn't compare to Fleury's 40-16-9.
"I'm really excited just to get started, to play that first game," Fleury said of his playoff debut. "It will be pretty cool, I think. I don't think about it (the pressure). If I can do a good job, just get some wins, that's what really matters."
The Senators are a difficult opponent for a goalie who has never appeared in the playoffs - they scored 286 goals during the season, second only to Buffalo's 298. With Dany Heatley (50 goals, 105 points), Jason Spezza (34 goals, 87 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (29, goals, 87 points), they have three imposing scorers who can decide a game.
The Penguins also believe they have the goaltender who can stop them. Fleury was 2-1 against Ottawa during the season.
Fleury doesn't think his lack of playoff experience will matter - a year ago, Carolina's Cam Ward won the Stanley Cup during his first playoff run.
"I like the challenge. I think it will be tough for sure, but once we get going it will be pretty good," Fleury said. "They've got some good offensive guys, so it's a little bit tougher for the goalie, but if I do a good job, we should be fine."