This is the sort of night where something is supposed to go wrong for Marc-Andre Fleury: A big lead fading away; a rival building going absolutely bananas. Oh, and the chance to finish off a playoff series.
Yet there Fleury stood in the middle of a collapse waiting to happen on Monday looking … composed. Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets put a couple pucks behind him to make this much closer than the Pittsburgh Penguins would have wanted, but did you see the save he made on Matt Calvert?
The Blue Jackets forward broke in alone immediately after his team had clawed back to 4-2 down in the third period and Fleury stopped him cold. That was a big-time play. Even after Nick Foligno tipped home a shot to make it 4-3 with a long 4:47 left to play, the Penguins goalie didn’t blink.
And as Fleury celebrated a series victory – his first since 2010 – it at least had to be pondered whether he’s finally emerged from the forest and rediscovered his confidence. There were, after all, plenty of opportunities for him to wilt like a delicate flower against Columbus. In recent springs, that’s basically how things have gone when the heat got cranked up.
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So shaken was the collective confidence in Fleury that some suggested he be replaced by the unproven Jeff Zatkoff after a speed wobble late in Game 4. That was the night that Columbus tied this series 2-2 thanks to two miscues from the Penguins starter. First he left his net just before the late tying goal, then he whiffed on a long, looping shot from Foligno in overtime.
However, Dan Bylsma stuck with his starting goaltender and Fleury rewarded that confidence by playing like an unburdened athlete. There was 23 saves on 24 shots in Game 5 and then a patient performance in nervy Nationwide Arena on Monday night. The Penguins had a quick start with a chance to close out the series, but needed Fleury to turn aside a point-blank opportunity from Ryan Johansen and a dangerous Calvert tip while building a 4-0 lead.
As convenient as it would be to point to the Jackets fervent comeback attempted as evidence of his instability, it never really looked that way. Fedor Tyutin’s short-handed goal came through traffic, Artem Anisimov’s power-play marker went in off the post and Foligno’s goal was the result of a perfect tip. If anything, it seemed like everything that could go wrong was going wrong.
At least until the final buzzer sounded.
And while Fleury didn’t emerge from the first round with the qualifications of an early Conn Smythe contender, he was fifth among NHL goalies with a .948 save percentage at even strength. For a Penguins organization that is nearing a crossroads, that was good enough to escape the trapdoor of the first round for a second straight year.
This is a different Pittsburgh team than we’ve seen in the past. A number of key players, including captain Sidney Crosby, openly discussed the pressure they felt while battling the plucky Blue Jackets in the opening round. "It’s there, let’s be honest," Crosby had said before Game 5. When Pittsburgh was a perennial favourite, thoughts like that simply weren’t verbalized. Perhaps they weren’t even felt.
It’s a sign of a team that is desperately trying to fight off Father Time, not to mention the kind of organizational shakeup that tends to accompany failed expectations. The Penguins once looked like a sure-fire dynasty in the making – Crosby was just 21 and Evgeni Malkin was 22 when they won the 2009 Stanley Cup – but a second championship has proved to be elusive.
The majority of the frustration surrounding the playoff disappointments since then has been directed at Fleury, which is why this victory over Columbus was so significant for him. The 29-year-old goalie has had his psyche beat on like a tomato can in a prize fight, but is starting to fight back.
Even though one series victory surely won’t silence his detractors, it should help with his confidence. Remember that it was just last spring that Fleury had to watch backup Tomas Vokoun carry the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final after he fumbled and follied his way through a couple games against the Islanders in the opening round.
Despite that, the organization stuck by him. They sent him to a sports psychologist over the summer and vowed to give him another chance.
"Goalie is a delicate position, no different than a golfer or a tennis player: You’re on your own a lot," general manager Ray Shero explained in August.
Now the Penguins are on to the second round and Fleury has a whole new set of big games to prove himself. As far as opportunities go, he couldn’t ask for anything better than that.