Upon returning from a high ankle sprain that shelved him for nearly three months, Pittsburgh Penguins
goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
didn't care if the media and fans who follow the Penguins were anticipating a goalie controversy in Western Pennsylvania.
"I was away for so long, so I was getting frustrated not being able to be with the team, to play or practice," Fleury told NHL.com. "So the first thing in my head was to go play hockey, you know, go have some fun and don't worry about anything else."
Since Fleury was a teenager with a growing reputation as a big-time goalie who couldn't win the big-time game, having fun and not worrying about anything else hasn't been the easiest task.
Yet this time it actually worked, and here are the Penguins, backed by a supremely confident goalie, owning home-ice advantage in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the New York Rangers
Fleury erased the demons of last season's first-round flub against Ottawa by doing all he could to nail down a first-round sweep against those very same Senators. He allowed only five goals in four games for a 1.26 goals-against average, which was buoyed by a 4-0 whitewashing of the Sens in Game 1.
"I was more calm and relaxed in the net," Fleury said. "I think my teammates did a great job helping me out, blocking shots and clearing rebounds. It felt good to know we can beat that team."
Folks, this isn't the same Marc-Andre Fleury
you think you know. This is a more confident, more mature and better prepared player, one who is just beginning to fulfill the promise and expectations that come with being the first pick in the 2003 Entry Draft.
"There's no doubt this is the best I've seen from Marc-Andre Fleury
, the last month-and-a-half," Penguins coach Michel Therrien
told reporters last week.
But don't think Fleury all of a sudden figured it out, that the light just now went off. He's been successful for years, but he couldn't shake the rap of the goalie who couldn't win the big game.
Fleury twice led Team Canada to the gold-medal game at the World Junior Championships (2003, 2004), but each time he came home with silver. Four times he led the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the QMJHL playoffs, but only once got out of the first round. He played in 11 AHL playoff games, winning only two of them.
And then last season he went 1-4 against Ottawa after posting 40 wins in only his second full NHL season.
"I don't know," Fleury said when asked if he felt he got a bad rap as a young goalie. "I went to the final in the World Juniors twice. Maybe we lost, but I still made it there. I'm still young and I can still do a lot."
He may be on his way to doing it all at the ripe old age of 23, but Fleury also knows he may not be in his current position if it weren't for his past. As a result of his string of big-game disappointments, Fleury learned how to deflect any criticism that came his way.
"I just don't read the paper anymore or watch TV," he said. "Nothing you can do. Just move on. I watch the other games now, but if they're talking about me I turn it off."
What about this story, Marc? This one is detailing all the positives about you.
"I'll have my dad read it," Fleury said, laughing.
Fair enough, but André Fleury already knows how his only son got to this stage of his hockey career. He knows that a year ago, his boy admittedly was "overwhelmed" in his NHL postseason debut.
"The atmosphere was a little different," the goalie said.
It showed in his play. The Penguins were ousted in five games, and Fleury's goals-against average bulged to 3.76 by the end of the series.
"Maybe I was just making a bigger deal about it than it was," he said.
Fleury figured he wouldn't have to wait long to get another crack at figuring out the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but then came the ankle injury on Dec. 6. Ty Conklin
won 17 games in his absence, creating a stir in Pittsburgh, but when given the chance, Fleury flourished again to reclaim the No. 1 job.
He arguably is the hottest goalie in the NHL right now, having won 14 of his last 17 regular-season and playoff games while surrendering just 23 goals in the process.
"I feel pretty good," Fleury said in downplaying his impressive run. "I'm not too stressed, and I'm really excited about the second series. Since I have been back from my injury it has been going well. We have been getting wins and playing well in close games. It just feels good in my head. I'm not thinking too much about anything."
Except, of course, the New York Rangers
"It will definitely be a challenge for us," Fleury said.
For them, too.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.