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Marc-Andre Fleury makes most of playoff opportunity for Penguins

Goalie steps in at last minute, plays brilliantly in series victory against Blue Jackets

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't supposed to play. He was supposed to sit on the bench, back up Matt Murray and cheer on the Pittsburgh Penguins as he did last season for most of their run to the Stanley Cup.

But as Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, "Every team writes its own story." And this time the plot twisted back around.

Murray, who took over when Fleury sustained concussions last season, sustained a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Fleury, who led the Penguins to the Cup in 2009, was back in the net again.

Fast forward to Thursday, and the fans were chanting Fleury's last name at PPG Paints Arena after a 5-2 victory in Game 5 eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fleury made 49 saves and won his 57th playoff game, passing Tom Barrasso for the Penguins record.


[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]


"I still get butterflies and goosebumps when I hear the crowd chant," Fleury said. "I'm happy that I was able to contribute and get that win here tonight."

Fleury had help from teammates in Game 5, like defenseman Olli Maatta, who batted a puck out of midair in the crease in the first minute, and forward Nick Bonino, who lay across the crease to keep out a puck later in the first period.

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm5: Fleury turns away Calvert's tip-in try

He got the benefit of a call, too.

A 3-0 Pittsburgh lead dwindled to 3-2 in the second, and early in the third, Fleury was outside of his crease when Blue Jackets forward Alexander Wennberg ran into him with Penguins forward Scott Wilson pushing behind. As Fleury fell face down, Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand put the puck in the net.

Not only was the goal waved off, Bjorkstrand was called for goaltender interference, enraging Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby cashed in on the power play at 5:31. Wilson followed with a goal at 6:22. That was the game and the series.

But Fleury was brilliant for good portions of the series. He was vital in the early going in each game, when the Blue Jackets put the Penguins on their heels and peppered the net.

"Without him," defenseman Justin Schultz said, "I don't know if we get by that storm in the first period they have."

He was excellent at home, where he stopped 119 of 123 shots, and especially in Game 5. He made so many big saves Thursday it's hard to highlight them all. He stopped Cam Atkinson in tight, Wennberg with his glove, Josh Anderson point blank. He took a whack from Boone Jenner and put his glove right back in Jenner's face, then stopped Jenner with his left pad in tight.

"I think we had over 30 chances, which is just insane," Tortorella said. "We needed to capitalize. We didn't. They did."

The problem for the Penguins is that they had to rely on Fleury so much. Without top defenseman Kris Letang, they controlled less than half the shot attempts (46.24 percent) 5-on-5 in the series. They allowed 32 shots on goal in Game 1, then 40 in Game 2, then 37 in Game 3, then 34 in Game 4 and finally 51 in Game 5.

"It's certainly too many," defenseman Ron Hainsey said.

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm5: Fleury stretches for great pad stop

Even if you consider the Blue Jackets finished fourth in the NHL standings in the regular season.

The Penguins, who finished second, got away with it because they have so much offensive firepower. Evgeni Malkin had 11 points, Phil Kessel eight and Crosby seven. Jake Guentzel had five goals, Bryan Rust four. Their power play converted at 33.3 percent.

But in the Eastern Conference Second Round, they will face the Washington Capitals or Toronto Maple Leafs, who are tied 2-2 in their first-round series.

Though the Penguins defeated Washington in the second round last year, the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team for the second straight season. They have Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and added Kevin Shattenkirk before the NHL Trade Deadline.

Toronto has up-and-coming youngsters like Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander who can skate, feel no pressure and have shown no fear of the playoffs or the Capitals. If the Maple Leafs advance, they will have momentum.

Sullivan said the Penguins need to break out of their zone better and handle momentum swings better than they did against the Blue Jackets. They need to tighten up defensively.

"We have to simplify our game," Sullivan said. "We have to do a better job of not allowing teams to put us on our heels."

This story is far from over. But for a few days the Penguins can rest, heal and watch the Capitals and Maple Leafs beat each other up for at least two more games, and Fleury can savor another chapter of his Pittsburgh epic.

"I think once you realize you never know what's coming for you, you try to enjoy every moment that you have here," Fleury said. "We have a great team. We have great fans. It's a fun place to play. I embrace it and enjoy the moment."

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