When Marc-Andre Fleury returns to his starting spot between the pipes on Thursday, the players in front of him will have renewed confidence.
They will not have a quick fix for the inconsistencies that have plagued the Penguins for the better part of the season.
There is no trivializing what Fleury can bring to the ice when he's healthy; after his return from a high-ankle sprain last season, the Penguins were 10-2-1 down the stretch.
But Fleury hasn't exactly been a bastion of goaltending prowess this season.
Over the first 14 games of the season, Fleury was 8-3-2 with a less-than-stellar 2.86 GAA. In half of those games—including the last five before the injury—his save percentage dipped below 90 percent, bottoming out at a painful 82 percent against Detroit.
Since Fleury’s been out with a “lower body injury,” the Penguins have gone 5-6-1. Main backup Dany Sabourin was sporting an enviable 2.20 GAA and .921 save percentage— until letting in six goals on 27 shots in the Flyers' 6-3 pounding of the Penguins.
Still, looking at individual game statistics, Sabourin’s save percentage track is eerily similar to Fleury’s rollercoaster. After peaking at .967 against New Jersey, Sabourin’s lowest point came against the Islanders when he let in three goals on 14 shots and was pulled early in the second period.
All of this means what, exactly?
Goaltending is just another inconsistency the Penguins need to address—and simply bringing Fleury back isn’t going to do the trick.
The Penguins have led their opponents after two periods in six contests this season—and they’ve lost all but one. Add in multi-goal periods by multiple opponents—most notably the Flyers and the Senators—and it’s clear that keeping the puck out of the net should be top priority.
Ryan Whitney, who has been recovering from offseason foot surgery, is practicing with the team and aiming to return to the lineup before Christmas. This, more than Fleury’s return, spells out good fortune for the Penguins. With veteran blue-liner Hal Gill out two to four weeks with a shoulder ailment, the defensive corps could use an experienced addition.
The blue-line problems stem from inexperience, both on an individual and defensive-pairing level. Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang, who have both seen significant minutes, are in their first and second seasons, respectively.
With day-to-day injuries also plaguing the Penguins, call-ups have been short-term but frequent, wrecking further havoc on line chemistry. Michel Therrien’s penchant for playing musical chairs with defensive pairings doesn’t help consistency, either.
That said, it might be a while before the Penguins are able to keep their opponents from scoring with any regularity. Marc-Andre Fleury’s return should help energize the offense, which could prove just as valuable.
Simply put, players are more comfortable in front of Fleury. He has proven himself to be a franchise goaltender, and teammates are confident with that distinction.
The Penguins have played a notably less dynamic style of play, seemingly focused more on protecting their backup net-minder than playing Pittsburgh-style hockey. Fleury’s return allows for a shift back to an offensive mindset, and Whitney’s comeback injects much-needed jump into the Penguins transition game.
If the blue-line can’t stop them, the offense can at least outscore them—for the time being.
Fleury’s return, in and of itself, will not vault the Penguins atop the Eastern Conference standings. As more players get healthy, the defense gets comfortable, and the offense gets consistent, points will come and the Penguins will climb.
And when that happens, watch out.