Goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins is not traditionally one of the toughest jobs in sports. The gig certainly isn't up to par with quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and may even provide less stress than backstopping the neighboring Philadelphia Flyers.
Goaltender for this Penguins team, though? The post has come under heavy fire over the last three seasons, mostly because of how perfect other aspects of the squad appear to be.
Through gold and black glasses, Sidney Crosby can do no wrong. Ditto for Evgeni Malkin and even James Neal.
General manager Ray Shero has done a terrific job of collecting a prolific group of forwards that should be able to carry enough water to win most hockey games—so long as the goalie doesn't give up any softies.
That's Marc-Andre Fleury's lot in life. Right this second, the 29-year-old is dealing with more pressure than most adults can fathom. One period into this important run at the Stanley Cup, "Flower" appeared to be wilting under that pressure. The heat. The high, stinking cheddar. Again.
The Columbus Blue Jackets carried a 2-1 lead after the opening frame of Game 1 and the "here we go again" birds started falling out of the sky across the Internet.
When Derek MacKenzie scored a short-handed goal just 43 seconds into the second period, Fleury was already at an important crossroads.
He could either buckle and concede, or he could look down the ice and decide that he was going to outplay the defending Vezina Trophy winner the rest of the way. Cold as the ice he plays on, Sergei Bobrovsky doesn't have the reputation as a guy that gets easily rattled.
After almost willing the Blue Jackets into the postseason in 2013, "Bob" is poised for a breakout showing in the playoffs.
That wasn't lost on Fleury, who ignored the deficit and simply did his part to help the Penguins get back into the game.
After Pittsburgh won on the power of three unanswered goals and a few strong saves from "Flower," defenseman Matt Niskanen spoke with reporters about Fleury.
"There was no panic button. There was no pouting. There was nothing negative at all. He was just ... sharp," he said.
We're still talking about the same guy, right? The same goalie that head coach Dan Bylsma just couldn't go back to after the first round last year? The same netminder that didn't get a chance to play for Canada in the Olympics because of his reputation as big-game choker?
After yielding that third tally to MacKenzie, Fleury made 20 consecutive saves and gave his team every chance to win. He even came up with a few timely saves down the stretch—the sort of performance that had eluded him in years gone by.
One game doesn't mean a whole lot. Fleury pitched a shutout in Game 1 against the New York Islanders last season, and we all know where he ended up by the end of that series.
The Blue Jackets have a different vibe to them, though. When they ask, "Why not us?" it doesn't feel like a marketing campaign.
Columbus is a real threat, and the team's biggest difference-maker is in goal. If Fleury couldn't outplay Evgeni Nabokov last year, then how is he going to square off with Bobrovsky now? It's a fair question to ask.
The answer is a trite one, but that doesn't make it any less true. Fleury can get through this first round by doing exactly what he did in Game 1, minus one goal.
If he can keep the opposition—whether it be these Blue Jackets, the Boston Bruins or the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final—to two or fewer goals throughout the postseason, then Pittsburgh will be in a good position.
It won't guarantee a Cup or even a series victory, but that will be Fleury doing his part. The Penguins have some issues to iron out on the penalty kill and they're quite average in terms of five-on-five play. Fleury can't control most of those problems, though.
He can control how he responds to adversity, and if Game 1 was any indication, Fleury has taken the first stride in putting his reputation as only a good regular-season goalie to bed.
It's the first of many, but everyone needs to pick the skate up and put it down that first time—if only for the sake of momentum and forward motion.
It's progress. Not good, but better.
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