Turnaround stories and sports go hand and hand. Pittsburgh Penguins starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is having a great turnaround story himself this year.
Fleury and the Penguins had a disappointing second-round elimination in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs via the Montreal Canadians. In that series, Fleury was not at his best to say the least. He allowed three or more goals in four of the seven games, including nine goals in the last two games.
This year was a highly anticipated year for the Penguins. We saw the opening of the beautiful new arena, the Consol Energy Center. The Penguins also participated in the 2011 NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field against their rivals, the Washington Capitals.
The Pens also entered the season as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
I, for one, expected Fleury to have a big year this year. I thought that he would use his poor performances from last season as motivation to have a career year. It just goes to show you that you can never truly expect anything.
Fleury had a miserable start to his season this year, going just 1-6 in his first seven starts. In those seven games, Fleury had a goals-against average of 3.54, which was good enough for second to last in the league.
His save percentage was even worse, dropping all the way down to 85 percent, which was 40th in the NHL.
Fleury was feeling the heat from the fans who openly booed him, at home for his poor performances. His head coach, Dan Bylsma, pulled him from games on more than one occasion and even called Fleury out during his press conferences.
Fleury was also feeling heat from his backup, Brent Johnson.
Johnson has had a great year for a backup goalie. Johnson is 8-4-2 with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
After Johnson's hot start, and with Fleury's struggles, I heard a lot of people saying that Johnson is the man and that Fleury is overrated—both of which are ridiculous statements.
Yes, Fleury had a bad start, and yes Johnson has had a good year, but Fleury is, was and always will be a better goalie than Johnson.
And that's no knock to Johnson. Having a backup goalie that you can count on is only a good thing. However, Johnson has looked more like, well, Brent Johnson as of late.
One thing that has happened is he seems to have gotten his confidence back. His teammates have had his back in the media and the fans have been way more supportive at home games.
One thing you have to remember is all goalies go through slumps, even franchise goalies.
I've seen Patrick Roy give up nine goals on 20-some shots, and I've seen Martin Brodeur pulled on multiple occasions. Fleury may give up an occasional goal that makes you cringe, but in the same game he can make a save that can make you say, "How in the hell did he save that?"
Since Fleury's bad start, he's been absolutely stellar in net for the Pens. His numbers are now good enough to garner him some attention as a nominee for the Vezina trophy. For the season Fleury is now 34-18-5, with a .920 save percentage, and a 2.28 GAA, all of which are good enough to be in the top five in the league.
Yes, Fleury has a good team in front of him but lately the Pens have been without Sidney Crosby for over a month and Evgeni Malkin is out for the rest of the season. Fleury has had multiple minor leaguers playing in front of him and yet the Pens and Fleury continue to win and are still in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
At one point, from January 12 to Feburary 4, Fleury had won all of his eight starts and was outright dominant. If Crosby and Malkin continue to miss games, Fleury could very well end up being named the team MVP at the end of the season. He's went to a well-deserved All-Star Game, and is currently on ESPN's Trophy Tracker for the Vezina Trophy.
Fleury has had some inconsistencies in the past, but now looks like he's finally playing up to his capabilities on a nightly basis. If Fleury plays this well in the playoffs the Pens will be poised to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
With all of the Penguins injuries, Fleury is now the best and most important player on the team. If Crosby doesn't return from his concussion, Fleury will be the team's only hope in the playoffs.
While that might scare some fans, I have all the confidence in the world in him. His a completely different player. He's playing with a chip on his shoulder. He's playing poised and confident and is one of the best goalies in the NHL.
When it comes to sports, Pittsburgh sports fans always have to blame someone when "their" teams lose. When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they blame Ben Roethlisberger first, Mike Tomlin second and Bruce Arians third, no matter what happened in the game.
When the Pens lose Fleury is always the first to blame. Even if the Pens lose 1-0. That's just the kind of pressure Fleury faces on a daily basis.
Earlier this year, Fleury was the goat. He was to blame for the Penguins troubles Now with his turnaround and with Crosby's return unlikely, Fleury is now a shoo-in for team MVP and is very much deserving. I'll take it one step closer. Besides Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, I'm not sure any other goalie is having a more impressive season than Fleury. I also think you officially have to admit that Fleury is a top-five goalie in the NHL.
Fleury was awarded the Penguins team MVP but he may even be more than that. Fleury should be consisdered for the Vezina trophy, which is given to the best goaltender, and he should also be nominated and considered for The Hart Trophy.
Consider what Fleury has made possible. No Sid, no Geno...no problem. The Penguins are just two points off the lead in the Eastern Conference.
Fleury is 32-15-5 since Nov. 12. Goals-against average of 2.09. Save percentage of .928. In those 49 games, Fleury has allowed two goals or less 32 times. Spectacular saves have become routine.
Consider the Pens' last three games: One goal allowed, Fleury wins the shootout. No goals allowed, Fleury wins the shootout. One goal allowed, Fleury wins the shootout. Nine shootout attempts, just one goal against.
I always knew Fleury had another level. Even when he won the Stanley Cup. I knew it—and here we are. So easy, it's boring.
Marc-Andre Fleury: MVP.