As I'm writing this, the Pittsburgh Penguins have 98 points and are two points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, with a crucial matchup between the two teams on Tuesday night.
What is remarkable to think is that the Penguins are still in this position following key injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey and a number of other players.
At one point, the Penguins had more forwards called up from Wilkes Barre-Scranton than from their normal team.
One factor has been consistent throughout this tumultuous season though—the outstanding play of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
When the Penguins began the season 7-8-1, many Penguins fans, including myself, began to wonder if it was time to consider having Brent Johnson start full-time over Fleury until he corrected his deficiencies. Fleury has always had his moments where he has allowed soft goals, but he took it to a new level at the beginning of the season.
But then, at a home game on November 12th vs. Tampa Bay, the fans realized that Fleury needed a rallying point, and they gave it to him. The fans began to chant, "Fleury! Fleury! Fleury!" and since that point, he has been a different player.
Fleury has even stated publicly that the game against Tampa Bay was a turning point for him because it allowed him to gain confidence.
Since that game, a 5-1 win for the Penguins, the team is 38-15-7, and the Penguins would go on to win 14 of their next 15 games.
Everyone knows by now that Sidney Crosby has been out for the past three months, and no one knows if he will return for the playoffs, despite him returning to the ice last week.
Nearly every media outlet and fan outside of Pittsburgh (hell, including half of die-hard Penguins fans), considered this season a wash due to so many injuries. But the team did not back down and rallied in the face of adversity.
The Penguins knew that they were not going to replace the scoring of Crosby (he still leads the Penguins in points with 66, 18 more than second-place Kris Letang), so they had to take a more defensive approach.
Which all starts in net with Marc-Andre Fleury.
For the season (before beating the Panthers), Fleury is 33-18-5 with a 2.30 GAA, .918 save percentage and three shutouts.
To put that into perspective, for the 2008-09 season (when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup), Fleury went 35-18-7 with a 2.67 GAA, .912 save percentage and four shutouts.
Furthermore, consider for his career that Fleury has a 2.74 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
Clearly, Fleury has escalated his game to new heights that we had all hoped he could achieve when the Penguins selected him as the first overall pick in the 2003 draft.
The fact of the matter is that, yes, the Sedin twins have had remarkable seasons, Jonathan Toews has carried the Blackhawks back into the playoff picture and Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry are burying goals at a rapid pace, but without Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins would be eliminated from the playoffs already, or damn near close.
Today, Fleury was named team MVP for the 2010-11 season. While this award is perennially Crosby's, Fleury has defined what it means to be indispensable to a team.
Hopefully, he gets the national recognition he deserves and is in the conversation for the Hart Trophy.
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