Why Marc-Andre Fleury's career with the Penguins hinges on Game 5

by Apr 24, 9:22 AM

The puck slid beneath the left hashmarks from the right side with two ticks left on the clock, and one of the best hockey players who ever existed, Nick Lidstrom, was going to get a shot off. With a one goal lead and three wins in the Stanley Cup Final, Marc-Andre Fleury lunged up and across like a dolphin entertaining a crowd at Seaworld and stopped the puck just moments before the clock stopped too, and the Pittsburgh Penguins became champions.

The tidal wave of mockery that now plagues the same man who made that legendary save would’ve been impossible to predict in the summer that followed.

The 24-year-old Penguins star had a Stanley Cup ring, had been to the Final in back-to-back seasons, and was a part of a young Penguins core that looked poised to contend year after year. His seven-year deal worth $35 million guaranteed he’d be a part of it all. Or so it seemed.

Since raising the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, Fleury’s post-season play has been so bad that the Pens find themselves trying to figure out whether or not they can trust him with the crease. After Fleury’s last-minute gaffe in Game 4 allowed Brandon Dubinsky to tie the score, and a 60-foot wrist shot in overtime dove under his glove to give Columbus the game, the questions were inevitable.

Yes, he played well throughout the rest of the game, but there’s too much post-season baggage at this point to ignore just how “Typical Fleury” those moments have become. You can only make excuses until the evidence piles so high.

Since the Cup year, Fleury has more-or-less been an average starter in the regular season. He’s been worse (09-10: .905 SV%), better (10-11: .918), and in the middle (11-12: .913, 12-13: .916). But for whatever reason he’s decided his pre-game meal in playoffs is going to be served by Hannibal Lecter, who will serve him small pieces of his own brain, possibly with a nice Chianti.

He’s been Sideshow Awful, a new category of bad that visitors at a circus would happily pay to see.

It’s one thing to post bad playoff numbers because your team was overmatched in the first round, and hey, small sample size, what’re you going to do? It’s another thing entirely to become the story because you’re often reacting to shots like a teenager on ketamine trying to catch R.A. Dickey knuckleballs.

He gave up 54 goals over 20 games during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 post-seasons, posting ugly save percentages of .891 and .899...before it really got bad.

In the 14 playoff games since, he’s given up fewer than three goals just twice. He’s now on a run of three-or-more goals allowed in eight straight games.

Then there was the playoff series against Philadelphia in 2011-12 in which Fleury gave up an astonishing 26 goals over six games (4.33 per) en route to a first round exit despite the fact that his own team scored 26 of their own. Some of the goals looked legitimately hard to let in. He had to go out his way not to stop some of these shots.

Given their rivalry with Philadelphia, and Sidney Crosby’s own personal battle with Claude Giroux, that series was hard on the Penguins organization.

The next year they drew the New York Islanders in the first round, offensive dynamos that they are, and after shutting them out in game one, Fleury came unglued again. He gave up 17 goals over the next four games, including more of the variety that wouldn’t have gone in had there actually not been a goalie in net (like this, and like this).

The Pens couldn’t trust him so they yanked him in favor of Tomas Vokoun, and the back-up took over,  giving up just three goals over the next two games to close out the series.

Vokoun got the crease against Ottawa in the next round, gave up 11 goals over five games en route to a Pens series victory and an appointment with Bruins. In the Boston series, Fleury saw the net for a period and a half, gave up three on all of 17 shots, and another post-season was officially in the books.

Playoffs appeared to be in his head.

Heading into this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were at a crossroads: can we trust this guy in big moments? Will he cost us games? Every extra playoff game you play is extra wear and tear on the players and hurts your playoff chances, so we can’t have that. Will this year be better? If we don’t think so...then what?

In the summer of 2013 the Penguins acquired a new goalie coach in Mike Bales, and Fleury starting seeing a sports psychologist.

Here’s what Dan Bylsma, the team’s head coach said about Fleury as they prepared for another 82 game campaign:

“We all believe in Marc. The mental part is an aspect for Marc and for our team. We know he's a great goalie. He's got great physical attributes. That's a real strength for him. Marc has shown he can win a lot of hockey games. He can be that goalie. But I think the mental toughness, the mental approach, the mental side of the game is something that needs to be a focus, and not just in April.”

But here we are in April again and Fleury has allowed 14 goals over four games (3.5 per, .903 save percentage), and the 109 point Penguins once again sit tied two games apiece with a first round underdog. With all due respect to Jeff Zatkoff (20 NHL games), he isn’t Tomas Vokoun, and the game-tying goal and game winner in Game 4 were the type of goals that probably make the Penguins wish he was.

Pittsburgh made a mistake in not ensuring there was an experienced back-up for Fleury this year. At a certain point the Penguins knew Vokoun was hurt, and they likely believed that Zatkoff was still too green considering the potential of the team and their concern over Fleury’s play in the past few post-seasons. There was no shortage of available masked men around at the deadline, yet they did nothing.

But hindsight is 20/20, and we’re looking forward now, so...do you hand the keys to the back-up at this point?

...I say no. I say you can only do that if you truly believe Marc-Andre Fleury is wrecked. Ruined. Just can’t do the job anymore, at least not for your club.

I, for one, don’t think that’s the case. I think he’s still capable of playing good (not great) hockey, and if you’re serious about winning the Stanley Cup, your best chance is with him. He’s done it before, he’s talented as hell, he’s paid the bucks to The Guy, and he’s the horse you bet on.

Saturday night is the perfect time to let him find himself again. With two days off before the next game, both teams come in rested - generally an advantage for the more talented team. They’re back in Pittsburgh and sure to be hungry after a crushing defeat.

Playing behind a skilled, desperate, rested team is the perfect situation for a goaltender in Fleury’s position - he doesn’t have to steal the game, and even if he doesn’t play his best he can still sneak out looking okay. Dropping back-up Jeff Zatkoff into this plum situation sets him up for that boost. Guess who you’re locked into for the remainder of playoffs after that?

If Fleury is put in another position to succeed and fails, it’s over. His time in black-and-gold will be over, and it will be the start of a new era in Pittsburgh. In the meantime, I say give him that one more start. The tainted seed of failure has been planted, but The Flower deserves one more chance to bloom.