MONTREAL -- Pittsburgh Penguins
goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
had been invisible for much of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Invisible, that is, until his team needs him most.
Tuesday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Montreal, Fleury found a way to shine, out-dueling the more-ballyhooed Jaroslav Halak
by making 18 saves in a 2-0 victory at Bell Centre that restored his team as the favorites in this series.
"That was pretty good," he said. "To win that game at home with a shutout was pretty cool."
Pittsburgh now leads the series 2-1 heading into Game 4 Thursday at the Bell Centre (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS), and they may be finding a swagger as their goalie finally turned in a game-changing performance this spring.
Simply, the Penguins could not have won Game 3 without Fleury, something that could not be said in their first five postseason wins.
"He proved himself today that he was the goalie. He made the big save when we needed him. That's the 'Flower' we like to have and he's awesome."
-- Maxime Talbot
"We haven't had a game where we won 1-0 or 2-1 or something like that in a long time," defenseman Brooks Orpik
said. "That was big for him, and for us."
It was big for Fleury, who grew up in nearby Sorel, Que., because there were whispers that he was not good enough this spring to assure Pittsburgh the best chance to defend its title.
Fleury entered Tuesday's game with an .889 save percentage, worst among the eight goalies left in the playoffs. His nemesis across the ice, Halak, has stolen game after game with brilliant saves and sported a sparkling .933 save percentage, the best in the League.
More tellingly, Pittsburgh had allowed less than three goals in just two of its eight playoff games entering Tuesday, a troublesome stat considering the low-scoring nature of playoff hockey.
So, suddenly, Fleury found himself standing on the Bell Centre ice Tuesday -- in the city he calls home, the city to which he brought the Stanley Cup this past summer to celebrate his greatest professional triumph to date -- facing questions he thought he never would have to answer again after being the key cog in Pittsburgh's final two wins of the 2009 postseason, wins that pulled Pittsburgh out of 3-2 series hole and literally stole the Stanley Cup from Detroit.
But professional hockey is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of endeavor and Pittsburgh most definitely can be a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately city.
And, in that crucible of hostility from the Montreal fans and doubt from his own supporters, Fleury did what he does best Tuesday night. "Flower" allowed the opposition to score fewer goals than his team, which is the essence of goaltending.
On this night, that would mean zero goals. Fleury pitched his first shutout of the spring, using his agility and recovery ability to turn in several sparkling saves.
"That's a great trait for a goalie, no matter if it is 1-0 or 5-4 or when you have the lead," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby
, who knows a little something about greatness. "I think being on the road and the circumstances being the way they are, it's big for him to show up and be big in those crucial times and he's shown that time and time again.
"We are really lucky to have him and you know what? He made some big saves and we wouldn't have got a win without the way he played."
Sometimes even the Penguins forget how lucky they are to have their unflappable goalie, a goalie that reminds longtime hockey experts of Grant Fuhr
, the oft-maligned netminder during the Edmonton Oilers
' dynasty who did nothing but win big games and Stanley Cups, giving his free-wheeling teammates the confidence to push forward and punish teams with unrelenting pressure in the offensive zone.
"He proved himself today that he was the goalie," said teammate Maxime Talbot
. "He made the big save when we needed him. That's the 'Flower' we like to have and he's awesome."
Now, though, the Penguins remember exactly why Fleury already has two Stanley Cup Final series appearances under his belt despite being just 25. It's because he is a winner -- plain and simple.
"There have been questions; we have seen them at different times of his career," coach Dan Bylsma
said. "He's never been one to put up blazing numbers. But he's always been one to answer the game save-situational or has thrown up great games and I think our room believes in the guy we got in the net. Time and time again he's proven it."
He proved it again Tuesday, and now Montreal has one more thing to worry about as it tries to get back into this series.