MONTREAL, QUEBEC -- Entering the conference semifinals showdown between the Penguins and Canadiens, all the talk was about the final line of defense, the goaltender.
However, the focus wasn’t on the reigning Stanley Cup champion netminder. There was no talk of the goaltender that has backstopped his team to the Stanley Cup Final each of the past two seasons; the pressure goalie that has won five straight playoff series and eight of his last nine – clinching five of those eight on the road with two Game 7 victories in hostile environments (one for the Cup).
Nope, all the talk was about Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak.
That all changed when the often overlooked Marc-Andre Fleury
stopped all 18 shots thrown his way in Game 3 at Bell Centre to record his fourth career postseason shutout and give Pittsburgh a 2-0 victory and 2-1 lead in the series.
“That’s as well as I’ve seen him play in a long time,” defenseman Brooks Orpik
said. “His rebound control was very good. He was playing the puck really well, which is a big help for us defensemen going back for the puck.
“We haven’t had a game where we’ve won 1-0 or 2-1 in a long time. When your goalie is playing with confidence, it gives confidence to everybody in front of him that they can play to make plays rather than play to not make mistakes.“
“I felt good from the start,” Fleury said. “They got a couple shots early. It was good to get into the game and go from there.”
Fleury was the Penguins saving grace in the first period as the team struggled to find its game early. The goalkeeper blocked all seven Montreal shots, including a great reaching glove save on a hard one-timer by PK Subban just five minutes into the game.
Fleury weathered the early storm until the Penguins found a groove and suffocated the Habs’ offense.
The Penguins defense clamped down in the second period by allowing only three shots and limiting the Canadiens’ second opportunities. Montreal only had 10 shots following 40 minutes of play.
“The guys did a good job all game long,” Fleury said. “At first they came out strong and got a couple of shots. I thought our team played great. We made it tough on them. They didn’t get much. The rest was for me.“
Fleury’s work load increased in the third period after Evgeni Malkin
’s power-play goal 1:16 into the final frame broke a scoreless tie. In the final 10:30 minutes of the game Fleury turned aside seven shots, several of which are worthy of highlight reels, to preserve the victory for the Penguins.
“He was great,” blueliner Sergei Gonchar said. “If you look at our game, we didn’t start as well as we could have. He kept us in the game. He gave us a chance. He was great again in the third when the game was 1-0. It was one of the better games he played.“
“I think it was a tough game for him in terms of some action and then a lull for a while, then he had some ferocious action,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “It wasn’t just one save. He made two or three that were developed and he had to come up big getting across the net. Marc-Andre helped us earn this win with his play. It wasn’t just one save, it was that flurry in the third.”
Two saves really stood out in the final period. Brian Gionta found Mike Cammalleri in the far circle with a hard, accurate cross-crease pass. Fleury slid from his right to his left to get his left pad on the shot with 7:36 left in the game.
But his best save came while the Penguins were killing a crucial penalty with less than four minutes remaining. This time Tomas Plekanec was the recipient of a good pass above the crease. Fleury, moving from left to right, made a split toe save on the shot to keep the rubber out of the twine.
“I knew it would be tight until the end,” Fleury said. “I was trying to stay focused. I knew they were going to come down. I needed to make a couple key saves to keep the game like that.”
“He had to come up big at the right moment in a pretty big penalty kill against some guys that have been scoring some goals. It was a big performance from him tonight. It’s kind of like, he’s done it again.“ - Dan Bylsma on Marc-Andre Fleury
Saves like those are the reason why Fleury is among the NHL’s elite goaltenders. Though he doesn’t put up the sparkling goals-against average and save percentage numbers, what distinguishes Fleury is his uncanny ability to make the big save at the big time to win hockey games.
“He’s never been one to put up blazing numbers. But he’s always been one to answer with a game-saving situation or answer or thrown up great games,” Bylsma said. “Our room believes in the guy we have in the net. Time and time again he’s proven it.
“He had to come up big at the right moment in a pretty big penalty kill against some guys that have been scoring some goals. It was a big performance from him tonight. It’s kind of like, he’s done it again.“
The win was all the more sweet for the Soral, Quebec native, who notched a shutout in his first career playoff game against his hometown team.
“It’s a tough building to play in,” Fleury said. “It’s pretty loud. It’s tough to win here. … To win the game at home is pretty cool.”
And though he may not receive a lot of the attention that other NHL goaltenders do, the players wearing the Penguins sweater know that when everything is on the line, they can count on Fleury to come through for them.
As Kris Letang
“He’s always great. He always stops the puck. It was just one of those nights were he stopped everything.”