Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
sat in his stall inside the locker room at Madison Square Garden. The red was swelling in his eyes as he spoke softly with reporters following the Pens’ 2-1 overtime loss in Game 5 against the NY Rangers that ended their season.
Fleury, the team’s regular-season MVP, was Pittsburgh’s best player in the postseason. Despite playing behind a young and inexperienced defensive corps due to injuries, he posted a jaw-dropping .927 save percentage and a 2.12 goals-against average. Even more impressive is that the majority of his saves came on high-quality scoring chances.
“He was awesome. He was outstanding,” center Brandon Sutter said. “He gave us a chance.”
Fleury, who was named to his second-career NHL All-Star Game, was a rock for the Pens all year long. He steadied the ship despite a rash of injuries that saw Pittsburgh lose three of its top four defensemen down the stretch. The Pens even managed to win games with only five blueliners in the lineup thanks to the spectacular play of their netminder.
Entering the final game of the regular season at Buffalo, the Pens needed to win in order to earn a playoff berth. In the most important game of the season and playing in back-to-back nights, Fleury stopped all 28 shots he faced to record his NHL-best and franchise-record 10th shutout.
That’s all you really need to know about Fleury’s season. But here’s a look back at his incredible 2014-15 performance.
THE NUMBERS: There is no doubt that Fleury had one of the best statistical seasons of his career. He led the entire NHL and set a franchise mark with 10 shutouts on the year (his previous single-season high was five). Fleury also earned a personal-best shutout streak of 165:05 minutes and posted back-to-back shutouts on two occasions.
Fleury tied his career-mark with a 2.32 goals-against average and came just .001 percentage point away from tying a career high with his .920 save percentage (he hit .921 in 2007-08).
Fleury hit the 30-win mark for the seventh time in his career. Although he only finished the year with 34 wins, the main culprit was a lack of goal support down the final stretch of the season.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS: A lot of Fleury’s success can be attributed to some technique tweaks in his game (thanks in part to goaltending coach Mike Bales). But Fleury’s biggest strength over the past two years has been inside his head.
A goaltender, more so than any other position in sports, has to be mentally strong. After all, a netminder needs to maintain a high level of confidence and an ability to shake off the occasional bad goal, or bad game. Mentally fragile goalies will crack under the pressure and have short hockey careers.
Two years ago Fleury’s psyche was hurting. He was pulled during the Pens’ playoff run and had to watch from the bench as Pittsburgh advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. Many people questioned his future with the Pens.
To say Fleury rebounded from that adversity would be Webster’s definition for the term “understatement.” Fleury went from goat to MVP in two years. To pull that off takes a lot of mental toughness.
Fleury has benefited greatly from strategic changes to his game – going from a VH to an HV stance on his post play, staying tighter to his crease, etc. – but the real key to his unbelievable success this year was mind over matter.
X-FACTOR: There’s no doubt that Fleury benefited greatly from the Pens’ new defensive zone scheme. Under head coach Mike Johnston, Pittsburgh’s skaters are positioned closer together in their own end. This allows the Pens to use tighter gaps and collapse to the goal to protect against second and third opportunities. On rebounds, Pens players are instructed to play the man and not the puck.
Due to these changes in the Pens’ defensive zone approach Fleury faced less high-quality scoring chances than he has in years past. And when there were breakdowns, Fleury stepped up to bail out his teammates.
LOOKING AHEAD: Pens general manager Jim Rutherford was so impressed with Fleury’s play through the first couple months of the season that he re-signed the netminder to a four-year contract extension that will keep him with the team through the 2018-19 season.
Every season comes with roster turnover and changes. The Pens will certainly look for ways to improve their team heading into next season. But one thing is for sure, they’ve already got their man in goal.