After a 0-3 start to the season, the Pens are riding a three-game winning streak after knocking off the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers.
Evgeni Malkin has a three-game goal-scoring streak, Sidney Crosby busted out for three points Tuesday against Florida and Kessel has two goals on the year.
But the biggest reasons for the Pens’ recent winning stretch has been the play of their goaltender.
Marc-Andre Fleury is picking up where he left off last year, a season in which he was the team’s MVP and posted a NHL-best and franchise record 10 shutouts. He’s been the team’s best player through the early portion of the season and has kept them in every game.
“He’s always going to be our most important player,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “He always gives us a chance to win the game. Even when we have a night where things don’t go our way or we aren’t playing that well, he’s always there to back us up. That’s why we’ve won those one-goal games.”
Fleury has been the type of difference maker the team needed during their three-game winning streak. The Stanley Cup-winning goalie is 3-0 with a .99 goals-against average, .963 save percentage and one shutout.
“Each of the last three games he’s made two or three really big saves at the right time,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “He seems to be big in the net right now. I like his presence in the net.”
Fleury, who is in the first year of a four-year contract extension, is already the franchise leader is almost every category for goaltenders: games played (601); wins (325); shutouts (39). But he’s taken his game up a notch since making some adjustments to his game under goaltending coach Mike Bales in 2013.
“When I first came in we made a few changes. It’s taken a little time for ‘Flower’ to adjust to a couple of things,” Bales said. “You’re always evolving as a goaltender. I think what we did last year was building on the first year. This year we’re building on stuff from last year.”
While Fleury continues to work on adapting his game, the mental aspect of the game may be the biggest challenge for any goaltender.
“Some nights you feel like you’re flopping around, but mentally you feel good, you’re seeing the puck well and the puck feels slower so you can get away with it,” Fleury said. “Some nights it feels real fast, but if you’re technically sound it bails you out.”
The best may be yet to come for Fleury. The proud father of two is 30 years old. That’s a prime age for a goaltender in their career.
“He’s at that age right now where the game starts to slow down for goaltenders,” Bales said. “They really see things developing. He is such a natural athlete. When you combine that with his ability to read plays, his positioning and there’s always a possibility (for improvement).”
Fleury may be the most athletic goaltender in the NHL. When Fleury is really on his game he is using that athleticism in a structured way and keeping his eye on the puck.
“If you talk to most goaltending coaches they’ll tell you when their goalies are playing well they’re tracking pucks,” Bales said. “When he’s tracking pucks, that’s when he’s at his best. There is so much athleticism in his game. When it’s controlled athleticism, along with the tracking of the pucks, those two things are biggest factors in him being successful.”
There are many technical aspects goaltenders need to work on. But all of those small details add up to consistency, and that’s exactly what Fleury has achieved.
“You try to find ways to make every night the same, try to be consistent in your preparation,” Fleury said. “It doesn’t matter if you feel good, if you’re sick, just find a way to be consistent and battle that night. The little technical stuff, if you can bring that every night. Even if you don’t feel great, if you’re in the right spot and you’ll get hit sometimes.
“All together you work on everything. Just find a way every night to stop the puck.”