The biggest question the fans and media have going into the postseason is how Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will perform. But he was ready with an answer for his doubters on Tuesday, on the eve of Game 1 against Pittsburgh’s first-round opponent Columbus on Wednesday.
“(I) remind myself I have one more Stanley Cup than a lot of people, so I know I can do it,” Fleury said. “I think we have a solid team and I’ll try my best to get to it again.”
That was Fleury’s goal coming into the season: regaining his 2009 Stanley Cup championship-winning form (and 2008 Stanley Cup Final form) after a rough couple of springs.
During the 2013 playoffs, Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun following Game 4 of their opening-round series against the New York Islanders and did not play the remainder of the playoffs. That came a year after Pittsburgh’s defense imploded during its opening-round matchup with Philadelphia in 2012, allowing 30 goals in six games – giving Fleury a .834 save percentage and 4.63 goals-against average.
After the way the last two years have gone, heading into this year’s postseason it goes without saying that Fleury is under a lot of pressure. But the way he’s been handling it, apart from staying away from what the media’s writing and pontificating about, is by knowing that there is always pressure on him to perform in the postseason regardless of his past numbers and results. He’s the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie and the spotlight is on him. And he’s ready to play through it.
“I think when playoffs come around, goalies are looked at a lot,” Fleury said. “I’m ready. Looking forward to getting back in there. Looking forward to the game and for the challenge and just excited about playing that first game.”
The 29-year-old netminder has been preparing for this moment since the last offseason began. Not just on the ice – where he collected 39 wins, the most in the Eastern Conference and second (tied) in the NHL, and tied a single-season career-high with five shutouts backstopping a team that lost a staggering 529 man-games lost due to injury – but mentally as well.
“I think mentally all year long, Marc-Andre has known and prepared for not just winning games in the regular season – something he’s done real well for us – but playoff hockey and getting ready for the playoffs,” head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby just laughed and shook his head when he was asked about what he’s seen differently from Fleury this year to make people believe in him.
“I think the way he’s played speaks for itself. I think me having to defend him at this point is pretty funny. I think he’s done everything he’s had to do to bounce back,” Crosby began.
He then went on to make a compelling point.
“And like I said many times, a goalie doesn’t have the luxury of having a couple bad games. I had four not-so-great ones against Boston (in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final) and I’m still playing.
“I’m sure he’s starting Game 1 and I’m sure he’ll be ready. (He’ll) have not-so-great memories, I’m sure, from (last year). But I think he’s moved past that and it’s something that as players, we’re behind him and we know what he can bring.”
Great words from the captain, as Fleury’s ability has never been in question. He is arguably the most athletic goaltender in the NHL – sometimes too athletic for his own good. And he addressed that in his first season working with new goaltending coach Mike Bales after spending his entire career up to that point with Gilles Meloche.
Under Bales, Fleury did make a few minor adjustments to his game that he began implementing last summer in the offseason after what happened in the playoffs.
“It was good. New ideas, a new guy,” Fleury said of working with Bales. “Sees the game differently a little bit. Tried some stuff and I liked it, so it’s been alright.”
Bylsma elaborated on the changes Fleury made, which had to do with tweaking a couple technical aspects of his game to lessen the risk of letting in those bad-angle, deflating goals.
“There’s two aspects of his game that have changed, structurally-wise,” Bylsma said. “One of them is he’s a very athletic guy and has the ability to skate and move maybe like no other goalie. He’s been calmer in the net, tighter to the crease area and his angles and his aggressiveness when he plays. So he’s a calmer goalie in net.
“A big part of structural change has been post play and when the puck is below the goal line, his save selection and his post play has changed dramatically. And that lends to him being more calm in net, more tighter to the net and more in position as a goalie. So those are several things that are really noticeable when you look at those types of plays, and you’ll see them most when the puck is below the goal line and in those types of areas. There’s a big difference.”
All this talk about pressure. Does Fleury enjoy this time of year, regardless of what has happened in the past?
“It’s fun when you win, sucks when you lose,” Fleury said. “So try to keep winning.”
Hopefully 16 times.