Tossing out names like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur when discussing the success of any goalie can be a dangerous practice. Comparisons, after all, oftentimes lead to criticisms if said goalie doesn't stack up to his Hall of Fame counterparts.
But Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien had no problem summoning memories of a young Roy and a young Brodeur when asked about his 23-year-old French-Canadian golden boy, Marc-Andre Fleury
Therrien, though, understood where to draw the line.
"Look at the great goalies, Marty Brodeur and Patrick Roy, it looks pretty easy for them because they're always in good position and they see the play right in front of them," Therrien said. "With Marc-Andre, I don't think he's there yet with Brodeur and Roy, but definitely he's going in that direction. That's a good sign for a young goalie."
If you think we're nuts to go along with this comparison, that's OK. But considering Brodeur won his first Stanley Cup in 1995 when he was 23 and Fleury enters his first Cup Final as a 23-year-old, it doesn't seem all that farfetched.
While Roy won his first Cup as a 20-year-old rookie, Fleury never had a chance at that age because the Penguins were the worst team in the NHL when he got there.
That's why he was selected first overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Nearly five years later the Penguins are on the precipice of a championship, thanks in large part to Fleury developing into one of the League's finest goalies.
"It feels pretty good right now just to be where I am and where the team is," said Fleury, a restricted free agent after the season. "The good thing about us is we kept improving all season long. To make it this far, the guys are happy and having fun."
Ironically, it took an injury this season for Fleury to graduate into elite status.
With Fleury nursed an ankle sprain from early December to late February, backup Ty Conklin did a masterful job in keeping the Penguins afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
That meant when Fleury was healthy enough to return, he had to fight for his job for the first time in his career.
Fleury, remember, was anointed the Penguins' No. 1 netminder just a couple of months after he was drafted. After a poor start and with the team going nowhere, he was sent to Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the AHL for some seasoning. He returned after the lockout and was named the No. 1 again, this time over Sebastien Caron and Jocelyn Thibault.
Until the injury, he had no challengers.
"He didn't have much competition to be the No. 1 guy because we had faith in him and we knew what he was capable of doing," Therrien said. "By the way Ty Conklin played we decided to send Marc-Andre back to the minors so he could work on his timing and his game (when he got healthy). When he came back we didn't give him the net right away. We wanted him to earn it. For the first time in his NHL career he had to earn it. He had to fight for that job."
Fleury eventually won his job back and has been downright awesome ever since.
He has won 22 of his last 27 starts since returning from the injury. If you go back to before the injury, Fleury has won 26 of his last 31 decisions. He's 12-2 in the playoffs, with a 1.70 goals-against average, a .938 save percentage and three shutouts.
"There was about five or six games before he got hurt in Calgary that he was playing like a superstar," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "Since then it's just the same way. He just has brought it to another level."
"It's probably the toughest position in sports besides quarterback and he's still one of the youngest goalies in the League. (Management) was never worrying that he should be leading us to a Cup last year or the year before. It's a learning process and a growing process and he's progressing exactly like they thought."
Therrien said this is the best he has ever seen Fleury play.
"He had some good moments in his early stage, and he went through some tough times, as well," Therrien said. "With that little experience he got I think it's helping him to have this success. The game has slowed down in front of him. He's more in control. He's controlling his rebounds. He doesn't have to make that spectacular save like he did early in his career, and that's a good sign."
Fleury, who speaks quietly but is always smiling, doles out a lot of credit to his teammates, who are playing phenomenal defense in front of him. Having found success with their 1-2-2 trap, the Penguins limited the Philadelphia Flyers to 26 shots per game in Eastern Conference Final, including only 18 in Game 2 and 21 in Game 5.
"It's a thing we've been working on all year and right now the guys are doing it well," Fleury said. "The guys are doing a good job of clearing what's out there."Sidney Crosby
said Fleury's personality has not changed despite the success.
"He's the same guy to me," said Crosby, who rehabbed his ankle injury with Fleury. "We were hurt at the same time and I don't think he's changed through that time at all. As for his confidence, I think it was always there. All season he was playing well, but he came back and wanted to make sure he didn't miss a beat. He did that. He came back strong, and he's raised his level here in the playoffs."
Maxime Talbot, though, said he has noticed one change in Fleury's demeanor.
"You can see it in his face, him saying, 'OK, I got it now. I know how to win some games,' " Talbot said. "I'm sure he's going to keep on that way."
All the great ones do.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer