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Penguins' Fleury continues to clear mental hurdles

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- Marc-Andre Fleury is not judged the same as any other goalie in the NHL.

Marc-Andre Fleury
Goalie - PIT
RECORD: 11-3-0
GAA: 1.98 | SVP: .930
The Pittsburgh Penguins' franchise goaltender's history of meltdowns in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will probably stick to him until Fleury personally removes it with an outstanding spring performance, and it will unfortunately taint everything else he does until that happens.

When Fleury was signed to a four-year, $23 million contract extension on Nov. 6, removing his lame-duck status, it was his history in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that became the source of a raging online debate on the wisdom of the move by Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford.

The knee-jerk reaction when it comes to Fleury has been, and will likely remain, "Yeah, but can he do it in the playoffs?"

He is a polarizing figure in that way, a No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft (2003) backstopping one of the League's highest-profile teams who is widely blamed for the Penguins' postseason failures in recent years, even if it isn't always justified.

So the current remarkable run Fleury is on probably won't change the minds of too many people who see him in that light.

But it shouldn't be ignored, either, because it might be a sign of a changed man.

Fleury earned his fourth shutout in his past nine starts when the Penguins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 at Bell Centre on Tuesday, leaving him one shy of the five shutouts he had all of last season. Over this stretch, Fleury has gone 8-1 with a .944 save percentage to reach 299 career wins while just shy of his 30th birthday on Nov. 28.

"Maybe pee-wee?" Fleury responded when asked if he can remember ever being on a similar run of excellence. "I don't know, I don't think I've had so many [shutouts] so early in the season. It's not all about me; our team has been playing really solid defensively, not giving them too much. It's a huge job for me."

While it may be true that the Penguins have improved their play defensively, Fleury should know by now that it is often all about him, and not always in a good way.

But this run can't be seen in a negative light no matter how hard anyone tries, and that is encouraging news for a Penguins team that will need Fleury to be on top of his game five months from now.

New Penguins coach Mike Johnston is not burdened by any pre-conceived ideas of Fleury, and he's loved what he's seen since his arrival in Pittsburgh.

"When I came into the organization everything you see in him from the outside, that's exactly the way he is," Johnston said after the win in Montreal. "He's an upbeat, energy guy, he's a quality goaltender. He's been a great goaltender for this organization over the years. I think every year he has new things he wants to accomplish, and he's certainly moving in the right direction with all the shutouts he's had this year. Just the way he played in the third period tonight when we broke down a few times, he was right there for us."

The Penguins were outshot 14-2 by the Canadiens in the third period of the game Tuesday, but Fleury was unflappable, clearing one of his own mental hurdles in the process.

Fleury has always had trouble playing the Canadiens, more particularly at Bell Centre, about 50 miles southwest of his hometown of Sorel, Quebec.

It was the first shutout against the Canadiens in Fleury's career, though he was quick to make a correction to that statistic when he was repeatedly asked about it after the game.

"I had one in the playoffs one time," he noted. "It's my second."

That shutout came in Game 3 of the second round of the 2010 playoffs, a series the Penguins would ultimately lose in seven games to the Canadiens to begin their current stretch of postseason shortcomings.

That series also marked the beginning of Fleury's transformation from a Stanley Cup-winning goalie to one with a history of playoff meltdowns, and it seemed like every time he played in Montreal it was a reminder of that starting point.

But Fleury overcame that demon Tuesday.

"It seems like it never works the way I want it to here," Fleury said after the game, beaming. "It's fun. It does me some good to just have a good game, and to do it in front of my friends and family."

If Fleury wins one of his next two starts, he will become the third-fastest goaltender in NHL history to reach 300 career wins. Through 14 games this season, Fleury is 11-3-0 with a 1.98 goals against average and .930 save percentage in his second season under Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales.

Fleury is no longer a young goalie, but he is far from old. He seems old because so much drama has followed him since his draft day 11 years ago, but Fleury remains young enough to improve his mental approach to the game.

He took a small step toward doing that Tuesday. The biggest step is yet to come.

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