I’m sure you have heard the old saying – “offense wins games but defense wins championships.”
Unless you are the 1980s Edmonton Oilers or 1999 St. Louis Rams, there might not be a truer statement in sports.
And that’s what has to please the Penguins through three exhibition games because their defense – particularly the last line, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
– has been phenomenal in the early going, surrendering just six goals thus far.
At the heart of the Penguins’ defensive prowess has been Fleury, who was sensational between the pipes on Saturday night, stopping 32 of 33 shots to help the Penguins pick up a 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the “Ultimate Home Game” at CONSOL Energy Center.
Combine Fleury’s effort on Saturday with his 20-of-21 save effort on Wednesday against Chicago and the 25-year-old goaltender has posted a gaudy .963 save percentage (52 saves on 54 shots) in five periods of work.
“It’s so good to see him play like that,” Pascal Dupuis
said. “We all know that he can play like that. He is ready to go. He came into camp in great shape and he is having fun out there right now. That makes for great confidence in him at the start of the season.”
Surprisingly for as well as he looked in the crease, Fleury said after the game that he actually felt like he was struggling a bit during the early portion of the game. He particularly mentioned Michael Ratchuk’s opening goal as something that bugged him.
But as the shots began coming his way, especially in the third period when he stopped all 19 shots he faced, he felt like his game really began rounding into form.
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“In the beginning I thought I was struggling a bit,” Fleury said. “It felt like the game was a little chippy and the puck was bouncing everywhere. It seemed like the more shots I got, the better I felt.”
What stood out about Fleury’s night to head coach Dan Bylsma was how composed Fleury looked in his crease, constantly getting to the top of his crease to square up to shots and doing an excellent job with rebound control.
“He was good, he was sharp, he was aggressive,” Bylsma said. “Even in traffic, he was in
control of this situation and he played really well and strong tonight.”
As mentioned earlier, Fleury’s best work came during the third period when the game was up for grabs and the Blue Jackets were throwing everything and the kitchen sink his way – especially after Evgeni Malkin
gave the Penguins the lead for good with a goal 2:47 into the period.
Perhaps Fleury’s best sequence of the evening came right around the midway point of third period when he quickly kicked his right pad out to stop a David Savard blast from the center point.
Fleury barely had time to recover from that save when a quick pass to Fedor Tyutin sneaking in the back door forced Fleury to move quickly from right to left. But that was no sweat for the man they call ‘Flower’ as he flashed his catching glove to deny Tyutin.
Fleury also robbed Columbus forward Derek Dorsett not once, but twice, from about two feet outside his crease at the 6:56 mark, two saves which kept the Penguins ahead and allowed them to finish off the win with an Arron Asham
tally late in regulation.
“I think it’s good to make a couple of saves like that to help me get into it,” Fleury said. “I felt confident, relaxed and alright out there.”
“There were some really big saves at both ends of the ice,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “Flower made some big ones consistently. There were some good chances, but he was there.”
Always the perfect team player, Fleury also made sure to credit the play of his defensemen in front of him for helping to clear rebounds and block shots from getting through.
“The guys have been great the two games I’ve played,” Fleury said. “The PK is blocking shots and not letting pucks through. They are really talking to me and doing a great job.”
While Fleury looks to be in mid-season form already, he will still have a couple more chances to continue honing his game before the Philadelphia Flyers invade CONSOL Energy Center to begin the regular season on October 7.
“The plan is to give him another full game,” Bylsma said. “Really, the 60 minutes of concentration and work level is something that is important.”