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Fleury's hot play a big reason for Penguins' win streak

by Dan Rosen /
PITTSBURGH -- A smiling Marc-Andre Fleury turned around to face his locker stall, made a fist and lightly pounded on the smooth, wooden bench.

"Knock on wood," Fleury said, giggling ever so slightly, after making 23 saves in a 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

When was the last time the Penguins' goalie can remember being as hot as he is right now?

"I don't know, maybe bantam, something like that," Fleury said after winning his 10th straight game. "It's been a while. I really don't know. I can't remember."

He definitely can remember the last time he was colder than Pittsburgh's December air. It was only about 40 days ago, but Fleury seems as far removed from his horrific start to the 2010-11 NHL season as he is from those bantam days in Sorel, Que.

Fleury will carry his personal winning streak into Saturday's game at Buffalo, where the Penguins will go for their 12th in a row. He has a 1.59 goals-against average and .945 save percentage during his streak, but Fleury hasn't lost in regulation since Nov. 5 at Anaheim, when he gave up three goals on 19 shots.

He was pulled from his next start when he allowed two goals on just five shots in less than seven minutes at Phoenix, but ever since Fleury has been virtually unbeatable.

He was 1-6 with an .853 save percentage and 3.55 goals-against average after his first eight games. He's now 13-6-1 with a .912 save percentage and 2.33 GAA.

"He's good old 'Flower,'" Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. "That's what he does. He wins games for us and he's making key saves. Obviously we saw what happened at the start of the season. Bounces weren't going his way, but we knew it was just a matter of time until he was back on his game. He's helping us win key hockey games right now."

From Dupuis to Sidney Crosby to coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero, they all say there never was a doubt in their minds that Fleury would work his way out of his funk.

They cite his work ethic and an undying competitiveness that is hidden behind his seemingly permanent smile.

Shero even joked that during Fleury's month-long slump he would send the goalie text messages saying how much he loved him. Fleury probably laughed after receiving them, but in reality, Shero didn't know what else he could do but crack a few jokes.

"At the end of this, for me, was if it didn't change, what the heck was I going to do?" Shero said. "What can I do? You're not going to be able to trade him, so I'm stuck."

He was joking around, but imagine the helpless feeling Shero must have had as he watched Fleury fall apart in October. The GM tied himself to the goalie when he signed him to a seven-year, $35 million contract in 2008. But what if Fleury, at the still-young age of 26, was finished?

"From a management standpoint, a coaching standpoint, we never doubted he would -- it was just a matter of when," Shero said. "When I look back, look at video and go back to the playoff runs … the game is still there for him. He's still only 26 and he has too much talent, cares too much and works too hard at his craft for it to just fall apart. That was the upside."

Fleury knew it, too. He just needed time to work out of it.

Enter backup Brent Johnson, who became the Penguins' No. 1 goalie as Fleury tried to re-discover his game.

Johnson went 6-2-1 from Oct. 11-Nov. 10. He's had to make only one start since.

"If Brent was struggling, we would have been in a lot of trouble," Shero said. "Luckily, I think Brent was likely our MVP for the first month of the season."

Fleury can look back and pinpoint why he was playing so poorly.

"I was trying every game to start from scratch, but if one goes in maybe you forget about it and then the next game it happens again so you start thinking about it a little more," he told "You're like, 'Oh, I gotta make that stop,' and then you think too much about it. You think this guy is going backdoor so you start cheating a bit so you don't get beat backdoor, but then the other guy shoots and you get beat.

"Sometimes you complicate the plays. I do, actually, but right now I'm keeping it simple and playing the shooter. I know my guys have the backdoor guy, so I take the shooter, focus on him and then react if something else happens."

He's making nearly every save look easy, and that's not so easy. He's calmly steering rebounds out of dangerous areas, which takes skill, patience and timing. He's not thinking about a goal he gives up, but instead smiles under his mask, pounds his pads and goes after the next shot.

"He's good old 'Flower.' That's what he does. He wins games for us and he's making key saves. Obviously we saw what happened at the start of the season. Bounces weren't going his way, but we knew it was just a matter of time until he was back on his game. He's helping us win key hockey games right now." -- Pascal Dupuis

"You've got to know what the guy with the puck, what his options are," Fleury said. "What is happening around the net? Is he going to pass? If he tries a drop pass maybe the next guy will shoot it off your pads? You still think, but maybe not as much when it's not going well. When it's not going well you doubt yourself a little more."

The Penguins are making Fleury's job easier by scoring first in a lot of games. It's happened seven times during their current 11-game winning streak.

"Yeah, but even if we don't, though, like against Atlanta (Dec. 2), they scored first but it's still early," Fleury said. "I just try to make the next save and I know we can come back and get the win."

"I'm a lot more calm than maybe at the beginning of the year. I'm just more relaxed. I know I can make the saves, but if I don't I know the guys are there to back me up. It's a good feeling right now."

Knock on wood.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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