Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is playing some of the best hockey of his professional career, and was recently rewarded with the team MVP award for his surgical performances lasting a good portion of the season.
Looking back at Fleury's tenure with the Pens, it wasn't always blooming season for the goalie who had a rough start in the NHL, despite being the first overall pick in 2003. Playing the most difficult position on the ice, Fleury had a tough time establishing himself on an initially poor team.
With the learning curve out of the way, Fleury has grown into a dependable goalie who has shone brilliantly this season, while players began to drop off the roster from injuries. On the flipside, Fleury has shown some consistency in a not-so-positive light as well.
It's all a part of being an NHL goalie.
Here are eight things we have learned about Fleury since his entrance into the NHL.
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com with any comments or questions.
If there's a moment that is consistently scary, it's the first shot of a game on Fleury.
Fleury has had a tendency to let the first shot squeak by him, putting the Pens at the tough position of being down early in a game. This type of play was very prominent at the start of the season.
The flipside to this problem is that if Fleury makes that first save and is continuously tested early in the opening minutes of the game, his confidence grows tremendously and the saves will continue.
Ultimately, Fleury facing shots early on in a game is crucial because of that build up in confidence. If the defense is playing solidly and not allowing any shots on net, Fleury tends to cool off and tighten up, so that first shot that's coming eight minutes into the first can cause him some trouble.
The Pens have relied on strong defense lately, but sometimes it's good to let them in and get Fleury into the game immediately.
Let's put it this way: if the NHL was to make tapes showcasing proper goalie techniques, Fleury wouldn't be the best example.
While any NHL goalie must have sound technique to get through a game, Fleury relies more on his agility, flexibility and quick reflexes to make his big saves. You don't see him give up on a puck unless it's in the back of the net.
Fleury's lack of technical perfection has come back to bite him during the season and at inopportune times during the playoffs, but he can quickly tap into "desperation mode" and get the job done when necessary.
Many fans are familiar with Fleury's ritual of skating to the boards after the opposition scores. In those few seconds, he curses to the high heavens and lets out his frustration before coming back to the crease and returning to game-mode.
This is Fleury's way of getting over the goal ,so he can move on and get back to his game, leaving the goal in the past where it belongs. The method isn't flawless as teams have been able to notch a few goals against Fleury in the span of a few seconds, but it has worked to his benefit as well.
Rebounding has always been a strong characteristic of Fleury's game, in part because of his laid-back and fun personality that has always made him a character in the locker room. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the goalie and they are more often than not taking the brunt of the blame for goals scored against them.
Save for some particularly rough stretches, Fleury has been able to put those bad goals and most importantly, the bad losses, behind him.
Game Five in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals is a perfect example of that. Fleury allowed 5 goals in the game before getting pulled, but followed up his poor performance by allowing only two goals in 50 shots in Games Six and Seven to power the Pens to the Stanley Cup.
There's a good reason why it's a blessing for goalies to have short-term memory.
As a high-energy player, Fleury gets a great portion of his fuel from the crowd, which is why their support has always been important to the netminder.
When he started the season 1-6 with a disappointing 3.54 GAA, he was hearing it from the crowds in Consol Energy Center, as well as the media and fans. You could tell by his interviews that it was a difficult time for him.
But on November 12, the fans started a Fleury chant and the result was Fleury's first solid win of the season, a 5-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Shortly after, the Pens went on their 12-game winning streak, with Fleury holding down the cage.
Fleury, as well as other members of the team, point to that Fleury chant as the turnaround.
Pens fans also started a Fleury chant before Game Six of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, following the Game Five blowout.
And we all know how that series ended.
I'm sure one look at this headline will get many emphatic nods from Pens fans.
A big part of a goalie's game repertoire is to handle the puck when it comes their way, typically via dump-in. It takes some time for goalies to get used to the the timing and anticipating problems with charging forwards and miscommunications with defensemen.
Fleury, despite his six full seasons in the NHL, still has some issues when he leaves the crease to play the puck. Sometimes it comes in an awkward bounce off the boards, other times it's a collision with skaters on his and the opposing team.
Luckily, Fleury has the ability to scramble back to the crease without causing much damage, but teams have been able to cash in off of Fleury's mistakes. This has happened because Fleury has made some poor decisions of when and if to leave the crease.
There's no doubt that fans have seen it happen enough that the vision of Fleury leaving the crease to stop a puck behind the net increases blood pressure and a mild panic.
Of course, watching the Winter Classic Alumni game, that saw former Penguin goalie and current Penguin goalie coach Gilles Meloche sprint to the blue line to play the puck, might answer the questions of why Fleury loves to leave the crease.
With the popularity surrounding the Pens' shootout drills, there's no doubt why they are so dominant in the shootout and the reason is Fleury.
In the last two seasons, Fleury has gone 13-4 in the shootout, giving up only 12 goals in that span. Just recently, the Pens set an NHL record by winning four consecutive shootouts.
The constant shootouts at practices can be thanked for giving the Pens those 13 extra points in the standings, a huge deal considering how close the rankings have been, possibly the difference between the 4th and 5th place seed.
Fleury loves to get cocky in the shootout drills, as noted in the Penguins/Capitals 24/7, and that has helped his confidence when he must face the real deal in a game situation.
Plus, it doesn't hurt that he's had to practice against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two talented danglers in their own right.
The big moments have defined Fleury's career and so far, he's been fantastic in most of them, especially the playoffs.
In the last three seasons, Fleury has gone 8-2 in playoff series and his performance has been outstanding overall. This is because he has the capability of going into complete shutdown mode when the pressure is on.
A great example is in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals in 2009. In the early minutes of the game, Alex Ovechkin took off behind Rob Scuderi on a breakaway only to be stoned cold by a flash of Fleury's glove. The Caps never recovered from the save.
Of course, no Pens fan can forget the save on Red Wings captain Nick Lidstrom in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals that same season.
Fleury may not always be the most consistent goalie in the NHL, but he knows when to make his saves count and finds a way to win when the offense isn't playing up to par. This has been huge since Crosby and Malkin have been out with injuries.
Fleury has received criticism since his entrance into the NHL because, let's face it, he has made his fair share of mistakes between the pipes. As a young goalie, it's impossible to avoid, as it is a part of the maturing process.
However, his mistakes have lead to the word "overrated" to describe the hype Fleury has generated in his short time in the NHL. This movement was especially strong at the end of the 2010 playoffs and the start of this season when Fleury was playing some of the worst hockey in his career.
People thought he was getting paid too much for his performance and wanted either a trade or for backup goalie Brent Johnson to take his spot as starter.
The sentiments were understandable at the time because of the overall frustrating play from the Pens, but the word "overrated" has never properly described Fleury's play as a Penguin, especially after what he has done this season.
Fleury's strongest moments in Pittsburgh have severely outnumbered his poor times. Any inconsistencies, which have come less and less as the seasons pass, can also be attributed to his age. To overlook that would be unfair.
What the duo of Malkin and Crosby has done for the Pens consistently in the standings, Fleury has done almost single-handedly this season. For the third consecutive year, the Pens are closing in on fourth place in the East, this time without Malkin and Crosby.
Sure, Fleury is going to have his off games, sometimes in chunks at a time, but Fleury has backstopped this team to unforgettable moments in Penguins history and that must be respected and appreciated.