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Fleury Among League's Elite

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
With two scoring titles, a Hart Trophy and a Conn Smythe Trophy between them the past four seasons, nobody questions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin having their names thrown around with the legendary performers of all time. The duo has lived up to every expectation hoisted upon them and then some.

But goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been equally impressive, if often overlooked. With 119 career victories and counting before he turns 25 on Nov. 28, Fleury is quietly joining those two as greats of the game.

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It’s hard not to notice Fleury in the early going of the season. He got off to a personal-best eight-game winning streak to begin the season and his eight victories are tied for most in the National Hockey League through Saturday with Colorado’s Craig Anderson (who played two more games than Fleury).

Through nine games the Penguins’ backstop has an 8-1 record and a .917 save percentage. Fleury is fourth in the league with a 2.19 goals-against average, which would rank as the lowest of his career.

What does Fleury think of his early success?

“It is tough to explain I think. I think every year there is a stretch of time where nothing is going well. You are still doing and working the same but everything goes in and you are losing games. Other times it is just going well as the team plays confident and calm no matter if we are winning or trailing in the game.

“I never really had a start with zero losses (like I did my first eight games). It has been going well.”

Over the course of the past four seasons, Fleury has transformed from a guy whose ability to win the big game was unfairly questioned by some into possibly the best money goaltender in the entire NHL. Back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances and a Cup victory in June silenced his doubters.

Fleury’s play the past two summers has certainly impressed team captain Sidney Crosby.

“I think with each experience he has gone through he has probably gained confidence. Being in the Final and winning Game 7 probably boosted it, but I think he has built confidence with each year.

“He proved it in Game 7 against Washington and throughout the whole playoff run (in 2007-08) he was great. It was a big deal. He came up big when we needed him the most.”

Since Dec. 18, 2008, Fleury’s gaudy statistics are more than comparable to a trio of backstops he will be competing against for the three open vacancies on Team Canada’s roster for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver: New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Carolina’s Cam Ward.

All but Ward have missed at least a couple weeks with injury, as Fleury leads the group with 35 wins, eight more than Luongo, the next-closest. While seeing the most shots of the four, Fleury’s .658 winning percentage ranks first, trailed by Luongo at .656, Brodeur .650 and Ward .510.

A breakdown of these numbers proves Fleury’s name should be at the forefront of discussion for Team Canada officials in anticipation of announcing the final squad in December.

I would love it. I would love to be a part of the Olympics. I don’t make the decision. I try to do my best here and get wins for the Penguins. That is what I have to focus on. Hopefully that helps me out. Hockey is big in Canada like football is in the United States. It’s always been fun watching these guys go to the Olympics every four years. As a kid you always want to win the Stanley Cup and play for a gold medal. That would be awesome. - Marc-Andre Fleury
“I would love it,” Fleury said when asked about representing his country. “I would love to be a part of the Olympics. I don’t make the decision. I try to do my best here and get wins for the Penguins. That is what I have to focus on. Hopefully that helps me out.

“Hockey is big in Canada like football is in the United States. It’s always been fun watching these guys go to the Olympics every four years. As a kid you always want to win the Stanley Cup and play for a gold medal. That would be awesome.”

Crosby, who along with Fleury was joined by Jordan Staal at Canada’s summer camp, would love to see his goaltender join him in Vancouver.

“He is someone who I’m sure is high on their list right now,” said Crosby. “He is coming off a Stanley Cup and has had a great start to the season, making himself noticed right now.”

His bountiful success that past few years should only further enhanced Fleury’s standing within Team Canada brass. Only Brodeur has numbers comparable to Fleury (8-1 record, 2.19 GAA, .917 save percentage) in the early going.

Brodeur has a 6-3 record, 2.42 goals-against average and .915 save percentage; Luongo is 5-5, 2.85, .894; Ward 2-5-2, 2.78, .913.

During his four-plus seasons in the NHL, Fleury has blossomed into player the Penguins’ envisioned when they selected him No. 1 overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

Expectations of Fleury were enormous after the Penguins traded Mikael Samuelsson and their first and second-round draft picks to move up to No. 1 overall to select the former Cape Breton Screaming Eagle. He surprised everyone by making the big club at 18 years old, had a scintillating debut against the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 10, 2003, turning aside 46 of the 48 shots thrown his way in a 3-0 loss. Fleury was named Rookie of the Month for October, but by January, was returned to Cape Breton with the Penguins struggling.

He returned for good following the lockout in November 2006, and has been the Penguins’ No. 1 netminder ever since, providing the clutch play not seen in these parts since Tom Barrasso patrolled the crease from 1988-2000.

Confidence should be plentiful for Fleury, as his statistics through his first four complete seasons are on par with perhaps the two best goaltenders of all-time, players Fleury grew up idolizing, Patrick Roy and Brodeur.

During their first four campaigns each netminder backstopped their team to a Stanley Cup championship; Roy with the Montreal Canadiens in 1985-86, Brodeur leading the Devils in 1994-95 and Fleury with the Penguins in June. Fleury was the only one of the three to make multiple Cup Final appearances in the time frame, taking the Penguins to within two victories of a championship in ’07-08.

Roy made the playoffs each of his first four seasons, Brodeur and Fleury three times apiece.Roy’s playoff record was 35-17 after Year 4, slightly better than Fleury’s 31-18, which bested the 29-18 mark posted by Brodeur.

Brodeur (563 through Saturday) and Roy (551) rank one-two respectively in all-time regular-season wins, and are the only netminders with more than 500 career victories. Judging Fleury’s record against theirs at the same point, it’s not hard to envision him providing company to the 500-win club.

A look at the three’s win totals their first four full seasons reads like this: Brodeur, 117; Fleury, 107; Roy 101. In case Fleury’s total number of wins is not impressive enough, consider that in registering those 107 victories he has had to make 382 more saves than Brodeur and 1,274 more than Roy.

Roy did play 28 fewer games than Fleury, whose 214 were eight less than Brodeur’s 222 games, but durability always has to factor into the equation when discussing goaltenders.

Since returning to the lineup Dec. 18 of last season after missing 12 games with an ankle injury, Fleury has started 81 of 87 games, including the postseason. His record during that period is 43-23-5, a .641 winning percentage.

“I love to play,” Fleury said of the workload. “It’s been fun. As long as we keep winning it is all good.”

As the Penguins have transcended from a team at near the bottom of the league during Fleury’s first two seasons to the measuring stick for the other 29 teams the past two, Marc-Andre Fleury has served noticed that he deserves mention when discussing the NHL’s top players.

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