Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can't hide from the fact that his play in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers has been nothing short of disastrous.
With only 67 saves on 84 shots, his .798 save percentage reads more like the save percentage from his shootout competitions this season, so to think it reflects his full body of work in these Stanley Cup Playoffs is not only troubling; to some Penguins fans, it may even be a bit nauseating.
As a result, fans and analysts alike are asking the same questions heading into Wednesday's Game 4.
Why has Fleury struggled so severely? Why is a former Stanley Cup winner having such a tough time controlling rebounds and bouncing back from bad goals? Clearly he lacks confidence, but can he revive it in time to stave off elimination?
PENGUINS VS. FLYERS
Pens won't pin problems on Fleury alone
By Alan Robinson - NHL.com Correspondent
Dan Bylsma made sure Tuesday to remind goalie Marc-Andre Fleury that the team's struggles aren't totally his fault. READ MORE ›
The answers may seem cloudy, but since Fleury usually plays a consistent game for the powerhouse Penguins, it's clear to see when he's lacking a certain rhythm, one that may have started with back-to-back losses to the Islanders on March 27 and 29, followed by a third straight loss on April 1 at home against the Flyers. That mini-slump now seems an ominous premonition for his playoff struggles.
In those three games, Fleury stopped just 52 of 66 shots, a .788 save percentage. And in five games against the Flyers during the regular season, he went just 1-3-1 with 130 saves on 149 shots, a .872 save percentage.
So maybe it's just the way Fleury matches up against the Flyers this season. Maybe it's all of the penalties and physical play making things more difficult for him. Or maybe it's the uncharacteristically porous Penguins defense, the untimely turnovers, and the high volume of quality scoring chances.
Even if this is the case, an elite goalie of Fleury's stature can't blame a sub-.800 save percentage on external forces. He's paid to make the big saves in the big moments -- no matter the obstacles in his way.
For goalies, rhythm is like a train on the tracks. Once it gets derailed, their play often worsens before it improves. Furthermore, as the pressure rises, goalies can start to squeeze the stick too tightly, as well.
This points to one major performance killer for Fleury: tension.
In the world of physics, tension occurs when objects are stressed or stretched to the point of extreme stiffness. For goaltenders, tension occurs when they struggle to read plays and execute in a relaxed manner, thus negatively influencing their natural reflexes. They, too, begin to appear very stiff in net.
Signs of a tense goalie include rigid movements, and hesitant, delayed or over-amplified reactions. On deflections and bad-angle shots, a tense goalie won't react cleanly, thus allowing juicy rebounds or leaky goals. They'll get pieces of shots, but won't fully catch or absorb them -- so pucks will sneak through them and trickle across the goal line in an embarrassing and momentum-crushing manner.
Look back at some of Fleury's goals against in the series and you can see that, with no rhythm and timing to his game, he has failed to make many routine saves in a relaxed manner. The result? Too many self-inflicted wounds.
Goalie - PIT
GAA: 6.34 | SVP: 0.798
What makes Fleury an elite goalie is a combination of pure reflexes, honed instincts, flexibility, pristine skating skills, and flawless edge control. These traits act as catalysts for his overall quickness, and this makes him one of the most graceful and “fluid” goalies in the world.
But when tension started to appear, the fluid element of Fleury's game evaporated, and he appeared more restricted in Game 2. His body started to tighten up on initial shots, his rebound control suffered, and his movements during scrambles around the net lacked a decisiveness or real purpose.
Fully aware of his struggles, tension continued to constrict Fleury in Game 3, and like a domino effect, it became tougher for him to execute in a relaxed manner. On numerous occasions, it almost seemed as if he was trying to turn his entire game around with a single save. He simply appeared to be trying to do too much.
For a goaltender, over-analysis can lead to paralysis, and Fleury has certainly displayed that on a number of occasions in this series. He has looked lost at times, over-sliding, over-moving, and over-thinking his game. As time goes on and more goals squeak by, the hole he digs gets deeper and deeper.
As bleak as things may seem, there is still hope for Fleury. Sure, his rhythm has been completely derailed, but sometimes all it takes is one big save, maybe even a routine one, to get back on track.
An extra day off between games, along with Bylsma's decision to cancel Monday's practice helps make this possible. At the very least, Fleury has been given a chance to push the mental reset button. The frustrated, tense goalie we saw in the first three games still has the potential to transform into a calm and relaxed goalie for Game 4.
If Fleury can make a couple of early saves, it will become much easier for him to play his game.
If that happens, the only question left to answer is whether or not he can push this series to a Game 5.