Marc-Andre Fleury: Tale of Two Seasons for Pittsburgh Penguins Franchise Goalie
The Penguins currently rank third in the NHL in goals allowed (1.9 per game), they have the best penalty-killing unit in the league at 97.3-percent effectiveness, and they've lost 12 man-games to injury from their three best defensemen.
The team can score, but it's their ability to prevent goals that has them at 8-2-2 with the most points in the NHL and the best winning percentage in the Atlantic Division by a mile (.800).
Is it finally fair to say—amidst the talk of the stellar blueliners, solid defensive systems and a team-wide commitment to backchecking—that Marc-Andre Fleury is entering his prime?
Through 12 games, Fleury leads all goaltenders in starts (9), wins (7) and shootout save percentage (1.000). His .934 save percentage and 1.86 GAA each rank seventh-best in the league, though no goalie ahead of him in either category has started as many games.
Compare that to his infamous start last season, in which Fleury opened the year 1-6-0. He didn't get his first win until his fourth start, at Nashville, and didn't bring his record above .500 until Nov. 19 against Carolina.
During that 1-6-0 start, Fleury never had a save percentage better than .900. His save percentages for the first eight starts of last year were .889, .889, .714, .875, .867, .875, .842 and .600.
That's a .819 save percentage over the first eight games, or good enough to get goalies not making $5-million-plus per year banished to the AHL or at least to the backup role.
Will Fleury be a finalist for the Vezina this year?
Consider the factors surrounding Fleury's play, though, and the real picture comes into focus.
He seemed to lack confidence, a point not helped by fans calling for Brent Johnson to take over as the starter. Four of the six defensemen in front of him were new to the Penguins in 2010-11, and Bylsma Hockey hadn't yet taken hold by the beginning of last season.
This year, each player knows his role. The defense is rock-solid, Bylsma has the entire team marching to his beat, and Fleury seems to be brimming with confidence built by his MVP-caliber play in the last half of last season.
His numbers in this young campaign reflect those positives.
In nine starts this year, Fleury has surrendered three goals only three times, never allowing as many as four. Six of his nine starts have produced save percentages better than .900, including one shutout (1.000 save percentage) and none lower than .850.
He's also been big in big moments. Fleury has yet to allow a power-play goal, and his 5-for-5 performance in shootouts against the Islanders and Canucks reinforces his position as the finest shootout goaltender in the NHL.
Pittsburgh is currently on a five-game winning streak, during which Fleury has started four games. In those contests, he's allowed four total goals with one shutout for a 1.00 GAA and a .954 save percentage.
For now, Fleury ranks in the Top 10 of most major goaltending statistical categories. While it's still early in the season, Fleury's a good bet to climb the ranks in each of those categories. Goaltenders the likes of Nikolai Khabibulin (EDM), Brian Elliott (STL) and Kari Lehtonen (DAL) aren't likely to outpace Fleury over a whole season, given the teams they play for.
With the Penguins' defensive strength and Fleury's brimming confidence, this might be the season that finally sees the former first-overall pick enter the prime of his career.
It's also likely that Fleury will get a real shot at the Vezina Trophy this year. He closed last season in the near-miss discussion for the Vezina and Hart Trophies, as he carried the team in the absence of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a slew of other starters.
Should the Penguins finish with a President's Trophy-worthy record this year, Fleury may even set a few personal and franchise records of his own.
He trails Tom Barrasso by 35 wins for the most in Penguins history. With seven victories already, Fleury would need to finish with at least 43 to top Barrasso's mark this season. That would be a career-best for the 27-year-old; it would also equal Barrasso's single-season franchise mark for wins and would put him squarely in the running for the Vezina.
Barring injury, Fleury will likely pass Barrasso in games played as a Penguin. He currently trails by 42 starts, and if he can maintain something near his current 1.86 GAA, it will pass Barrasso's 1992-93 single-season mark of 2.07.
To hit some of those milestones, Fleury will have to display the kind of consistency that has eluded him in his career so far. Pittsburgh is currently fielding one of the best lineups in hockey, though, and consistency up front should continue leading to consistency in goal.
The numbers illustrate that Fleury is finally entering his prime, and if he and his teammates maintain the pace they've set so far, he may match Barrasso not just in games won and records set but in Stanley Cups as well.
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