Flowers bloom in the spring. And Marc-André Fleury is living proof of that. In a season where Fleury has dealt with one of the most uncomfortable situations in his NHL career, he is now doing his best imitation of a brick wall as the Penguins try to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. And now, his play has helped elevate the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final.
While the Penguins did drop game one of the conference final to Ottawa, Fleury has stood tall. He’s only allowed two goals in the last three game, two of those games being shutouts.
Then, game three happened. And it was as much of a nightmare as could possibly be dreamt by everyone wearing black and gold. Fleury gets yanked after allowing four goals on nine shots before the conclusion of the first period.
Now, here it is again: the goalie controversy. Matt Murray is healthy again (why Fleury was in net in the first place) and looked solid for the remainder of the abysmal game that was game three. So, now the debate is Murray or Fleury?
Most of the time, I’ll give you the eye-popping stats to prove my point. That’s not what this column is about though. This is about the man putting up those numbers. What an amazing guy. What an amazing teammate. And this is stating the already obvious question of who the Penguins’ playoff MVP is.
It’s not even close. There’s not a counter-punch that’s worth hearing. The Penguins aren’t where they are right now if not for Fleury’s brilliance between the pipes. Yeah, they probably outlast Columbus, mainly because Sergei Bobrovsky was horrendous in net. The series, might’ve been a little longer, but I’d bet good money the Penguins still prevailed.
Do you think the Penguins survive Washington without Fleury’s play? Nope. Not at all. People can argue the intangibles all day about how the Caps are chokers or professional golfers, but they won the President’s Trophy for a reason. They were a dang good hockey team. Skill, grit, defense, and goaltending. They had it all. And at times in games one and two, Washington suffocated the Penguins in their own zone. Fleury was brilliant. He kept the Penguins in it and gave them more and more opportunities to get a go-ahead goal instead of a goal to cut into a Washington lead. It’s a totally different series if Washington even splits the first two games.
If you follow me on twitter (@chalicke), you know my stance on Kris Letang. The Penguins are a very different team without him on the ice. With his absence, the Penguins inability to breakout of their zone, or have any kind of transition game for that matter, sticks out like a sore thumb. Along with the first period of game three against Ottawa, watch the third period of game five and all of game six against Washington. It was ridiculous. Zero breakout. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Couldn’t even clear the puck out of the zone without icing it. The Penguins’ game relies a lot on the ability to breakout of the zone quickly and efficiently, enabling the forwards to move through the neutral zone with speed. Letang is one of the best in hockey at it. There’s probably only two or three in all of hockey that are better. I love Justin Schultz, but he’s a major step down from Letang in that aspect. Knowing the Penguins would struggle mightily at times breaking out of the zone, they might become susceptible to teams with a really good forecheck, like Washington. The Penguins don’t survive that series without Fleury’s dominance. It just doesn’t happen.
And now, Schultz goes down with a shoulder injury (we have yet to know for how long). Now the burden of breakout just got more interesting. With Schultz out for however long, Mark Streit or Trevor Daley step in, who are both good puck movers, but game three was the first game action Street saw in over a month. It’s hard to just rely on a guy to step in who hasn’t played all playoffs and match the intensity of his teammates or the opposition. Daley just doesn’t look healthy out there. He’s a great skater when healthy, and he’s able to use that skating ability to elevate his game, but you can tell the knee injury is slowing him down and it’s costing in the defensive zone. He just doesn’t look like the same player.
Game three Wednesday night was another example of poor defensive play and a lack of any type of transition game. It didn’t matter who was in goal, they were left out to dry. Anyone who wants to pin the loss on Fleury is dead wrong.
Mike Sullivan has now announced that the starter for game four will be announced Friday morning. He could be doing it to mess with Ottawa, but either way, benching Fleury after everything he’s done to get the team this far is the worst “screw you” ever. I’m a Sullivan guy and don’t think he’d do that to Fleury, but if he does, that’s a really bad decision I don’t agree with at all.
The bottom line is that the Penguins would already be teeing off in the morning instead of catching flights across the border still battling for the Stanley Cup if not for Fleury. I know just about everyone realizes this. At least, I hope you do. Marc-André Fleury is one of the greatest Penguins of all time. This is likely his last hurrah with them, and it’s hard to name a better teammate since 2003 than the Flower. People just won’t know what they have until it’s gone.