It’s not easy playing against your idol.
That’s what Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury faced against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday at Mellon Arena.
Fleury, who grew up watching and idolizing the playing style of fellow French-Canadians Brodeur and Patrick Roy, remembers the first time he faced New Jersey goaltender during the 2003-04 season.
“It’s pretty weird to be on the ice with him,” Fleury said. “The first time I played against him I was a little nervous. In the warmups, to turn around and see he was there was very special.”
Brodeur remembers the first impression a young Fleury had on him in that game and ever since.
“He’s more athletic than me and he’s quicker than I was,” Brodeur said with a laugh. “He’s definitely a great young goalie. From the first day I played him when he was 18, you could see he was something special.”
That’s certainly high praise from one of the best to ever play the position.
Brodeur, in his 13 years with New Jersey, is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a nine-time NHL All-Star and a five-time Jennings Trophy winner. He has won at least 35 games each of his last 10 seasons and is the only goaltender in NHL history with five 40-win seasons.
And, at 34, he continues to get better. This season, he surpassed Terry Sawchuk and Ed Belfour for second place on the all-times wins list with 485. With 12 shutouts this year, he moved into third place on that all-time list with 92. He ranks second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.926). With a 39-16-5 record, he is on pace to break the single-season wins record of 47, too.
“It’s crazy. Not many guys are able to do that,” Fleury said. “He’s getting older and he still does it. If I can do half of what he can do, I think that’d be great. He’s just an amazing goalie. I would love to be able to play as long as he does.”
In his first full NHL season, Fleury is starting to settle in as the Penguins’ go-to goaltender. The 2003 first-overall selection has a 2.93 goals-against average, a .903 save percentage and a 29-14-7 record in 51 games so far this season – much improved over the numbers he put up in his first 71 NHL games.
“It’s great that they are giving him the leeway of playing every game regardless if he gets scored on four or five times or whatever and they go back with him,” Brodeur said. “I think it does a lot for the confidence of a goalie knowing that your coach and organization believes in you. I think now with using these young guys, even though they can make mistakes, you keep them in there and that builds confidence. I think everybody on that team right now seems to have that confidence to do whatever they want, whether they are trailing and coming back or winning a tight game at the end. It appears they are doing the right things.”
Indeed. The Penguins’ recent 16-game points streak – the franchise’s second-longest – put the team in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff battle. Brodeur’s Devils have an 11-point lead in the race for the Atlantic Division title.
Fleury’s play has been key in the Penguins’ postseason push. Through Feb. 19, he started 20 of the Penguins’ past 25 games and posted a 14-3-3 record. He had a 14-game unbeaten streak, too.
The 22-year-old Fleury has four shutouts this year, which is twice what he had in his career before the season. He began the year with a bang as he notched 40 saves in a 4-0 win over the Flyers at Mellon Arena on Oct. 5. The performance set an NHL record for saves in an opening-game shutout, topping Glenn Hall’s 38-save performance in a 3-0 win in 1964.
Yet another sign of Fleury’s progression – he is 5-4 in nine overtime shootouts this season, which is up from an 0-2 mark a year ago.
Fleury’s improvement is no surprise. He has followed Brodeur’s career closely and tried to emulate the Devils great. Also, he works hard studying goaltenders and implementing positive things he sees from their games, too.
“I always watched him and what he does. I think he’s an amazing goalie,” Fleury said. “I like to watch and learn what he does; sometimes I try to do the stuff that he does and other goalies, too.
“There are lots of great goalies in the NHL and there’s always lots of room for me to improve. I just try to see what they like to do.”
One big trait Fleury has picked up from Brodeur – have fun.
“Since I started watching hockey and him, he just seems to have so much fun and he’s so relaxed and loose in his net,” Fleury said. “When he lifts up his mask, you can see him smiling and talking and he just really seems to enjoy playing hockey. He seems so loose out there, but is still amazing at the same time. I think that’s really cool.”