November has been a good month for Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He's 6-1-1 in eight starts with two shutouts and was rewarded by general manager Jim Rutherford with a four-year, $23 million contract extension on November 5, per Patrick Williams of NHL.com.
As Matt Kalman of NHL.com explains, "Jacques Plante and Andy Moog are the only goaltenders to reach that milestone in fewer games, and Martin Brodeur and Terry Sawchuk are the only ones to do it a younger age."
Monday's milestone win against Boston must be especially sweet for a netminder whose most vivid memories of TD Garden are likely of being stapled to the bench for the final two games of the Bruins' four-game sweep of the Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final.
Fleury has faced tremendous pressure throughout his NHL career, starting from the day he was drafted first overall by the Penguins back in 2003. He has taken his share of criticism but on balance, his star-studded team has performed well. Since Fleury's third NHL season in 2006-07, the Penguins have never finished lower than second in their division and have made eight straight playoff appearances.
The Penguins won a Stanley Cup in 2009 when Fleury was just 24, but his playoff numbers that year were just so-so: a .908 save percentage and 2.61 goals-against average.
In subsequent seasons, Fleury developed a pattern of solid regular-season performances followed by meltdowns in the postseason. Though he became the Penguins' regular-season franchise leader among goaltenders at age 27 when he recorded his 227th career win in January of 2013, the record came at a time when Fleury's long-term future in Pittsburgh was very much up in the air.
The low-water mark of Fleury's career was giving up 26 goals in six games as the Penguins fell to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. One year later, he surrendered 14 goals in four first-round appearances against the New York Islanders before Vokoun took over as the starter for the rest of the 2013 postseason run.
Since that benching, the tide has turned. Fleury bounced back with a .915 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average in the 2014 playoffs. He's putting up the best numbers of his career this season: a 2.09 goals-against average and .926 save percentage with four shutouts through 16 games.
Fleury's job is getting easier as Pittsburgh increases its commitment to defense in front of him. When he became the team's starter in 2006-07, the Penguins finished the season ranked 14th in the league defensively. Last season, they had climbed to 10th, and they're currently sitting in seventh place through 20 games this year.
The coaching style of new bench boss Mike Johnston is one reason for the team's stingier numbers. So is the evolution of a core of young blueliners led by Olli Maatta and Simon Despres. Other prospects such as Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot are waiting in the wings.
How far can Fleury go? Ken Campbell of The Hockey News speculates that, barring injury, Fleury has a chance to challenge Martin Brodeur for top spot on the NHL's all-time wins list.
At the very least, Fleury should be able to pass Patrick Roy and his 551 wins for No. 2 on the all-time list if he stays healthy. In order to do that, assuming he’s somewhere in the 325-330 win mark this season, it will take seven-plus seasons averaging 30 wins a season.
And considering that eight of the goalies on the top 10 wins list are in the Hockey Hall of Fame – Curtis Joseph and Chris Osgood are the only two who are not – Fleury might be able to build himself quite a legacy over the next decade.
Of course, that legacy won't be complete without Stanley Cup success, the goal that has proved elusive in Pittsburgh for the past five seasons.
For now, teammates like Evgeni Malkin will keep Fleury working hard in practice—and keep him humble.