The Pittsburgh Penguins face plenty of questions entering the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But for once, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is not among those concerns.
Throughout a season filled with injuries, inconsistency and upheaval, Fleury has been arguably Pittsburgh's most consistent player. The Penguins, considered one of the NHL's more potent offensive teams, struggled to routinely score three or more goals following a hot first two months, which they finished 16-5-2. Pittsburgh dropped off considerably since that start but was able to hold on to a playoff berth thanks in large part to Fleury's impressive play.
"I think that [Fleury] is maybe the most talented goalie I've ever played with," said defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who was traded back to the Penguins from the Anaheim Ducks at the NHL Trade Deadline. "Incredibly athletic, fun to play in front of, works very hard. And he's a great teammate and guy. I think you can see his maturity level since I've been back. I don't want to say [he's] more focused, but I feel like he does a better job letting go if something goes wrong.
"The other team is trying really hard all the time. They really want to score on him. It's a hockey game. You're going to try to win 3-2 most nights, and I think he's realized other teams are going to get one. They might get two, and I think that he's much more stable and ready to bounce back."
His maturity was noticeable last postseason, when Fleury enjoyed his best playoffs since winning the 2009 Stanley Cup. His 2.40 goals-against average and .915 save percentage were each his best postseason marks since 2008, when he allowed 1.97 goals against with a .933 save percentage on Pittsburgh's way to a Stanley Cup Final loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
That level of play has carried into this season. Fleury could earn some Vezina Trophy consideration behind Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price. Despite his performance, Fleury said much of Pittsburgh's defensive success should be attributed to those who play in front of him.
"I think we are a little more sound defensively, a little more careful defensively," Fleury said. "Even though we're not scoring as much, we're not giving up as much. So it's just a little bit of a different type of game out there. We've missed a few guys for a good part of [March]. Once we get everyone back in the lineup, I'm not too worried about us scoring some goals.
"If we have that good foundation of defense, I think that will help us, for sure."
Paul Martin, possibly Pittsburgh's most consistent defenseman this season, saw it differently. Martin said Fleury is the reason Pittsburgh remained in close games despite playing poorly and that it is up to the defensemen to reward Fleury by playing well when he is dependent on them.
"Anytime your goaltender gives you a chance to win a game, it's always big," Martin said. "Especially with the way [Fleury's] been playing. I think that's one of the frustrating things for us defensively, is how many big saves he makes, and how hard he works, and then we just end up finding ways to lose games for him. So I just think that's the toughest spot.
"But if we know he's going to be there, then it's just up to us to make sure we do a better job in front of him."