Don’t let one 95-footer fool you.
Though Vancouver defenseman Alex Edler took a single stride inside the red line and somehow managed to beat Marc-Andre Fleury on Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the blooper-reel goal is by no means an indication of how No. 29 has fared through 2013-14’s first two weeks.
And it’s the latter truth—particularly a .930 save percentage, a 1.84 goals-against average and a pristine 7-0 record through his first seven starts—that has Penguins fans buzzing as if the final piece of the puzzle has been added, or at least rediscovered, to enable another Steel City banner-hanging.
Of course, it’s not as if a hot goalie in Pittsburgh is a completely unique occurrence.
Fleury himself is no stranger to excelling in a black-and-gold uniform, having backstopped the Penguins to an unsuccessful Stanley Cup Final appearance in his fourth season as a starter, before returning the following year to complete the job with a seven-game defeat of the Detroit Red Wings.
He’s won no fewer than 36 games in any full season since the championship run and was 23-8 in an abbreviated schedule last year. But the 28-year-old nonetheless entered his 10th campaign with the Penguins this fall amid a tangible perception that his best days as a “money goalie” were behind him.
To a win-accustomed fanbase, after all, playoff performance equals reality.
A year after the franchise’s first Cup win since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, Fleury was among the anti-heroes when he gave up nine goals in the final two games of a second-round loss to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. The following spring, it was 13 goals in three games as Pittsburgh saw a 3-1 series lead devolve into a seven-game loss to fifth-seeded Tampa Bay.
A first-round loss to in-state rival Philadelphia followed in 2011-12. And after allowing 14 goals to the New York Islanders in the initial quartet of playoff games in 2012-13, Fleury was relegated to a backup role behind Tomas Vokoun while the Penguins drove the Eastern Conference Final.
Fate placed Fleury back atop the depth chart in the offseason—when Vokoun was diagnosed with a pelvic blood clot and deemed unavailable for three to six months—and his chances to hold the gig may have been bolstered when Pittsburgh elevated Mike Bales from an organizational role to a position as the NHL club’s full-time goaltender coach.
The two agreed on some technical changes to Fleury’s game during the preseason, which resulted in the best start of the veteran’s career, including a franchise-record 115 minutes, six seconds of shutout play to begin the regular season. He gave up a career-low nine goals in his first five starts and allowed just 13 goals on 186 shots in seven games through Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win.
Given an embarrassment of riches elsewhere on the Pens’ roster, it’s hardly hyperbolic to consider a reinvented Fleury the logical difference between another disappointing April flameout and a potentially robust challenge to a burgeoning Midwestern dynasty.
On the front end, injury-free center Sidney Crosby leads the league in goals, assists and points. Veteran winger Chris Kunitz shares the top spot in plus-minus.
And on the blue line, veteran Rob Scuderi and youngster Olli Maatta have stood out on a unit particular adept at forcing turnovers and triggering a frenetic Penguins transition game.
Come season’s end, then, it’d be little surprise if title winds had a decidedly Pittsburgh chill.
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