No rest leads to weary playoff goalies

| Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- He has never done it, and if those with his best interests in mind have their way, he never will.

Still, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has at least thought about it.

"I've never felt it, never lived it," Fleury said of playing in at least 70 regular-season games. "But last season, I was off for so long before the playoffs with my (right high ankle sprain). It seemed easy in the playoffs.

"Maybe it's because I was fresh."

The Penguins prefer to keep their franchise goaltender that way, so backup Dany Sabourin made his second appearance of the season Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks at HD Pavilion.

Fleury was on pace for 73 appearances. His career-best is 67 in 2006-07.

San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov was 10 better than Fleury's top mark last season. He appeared in 77 games, and is on target for 67 this season after starting last night for the eighth time in 10 contests.

Any appearance over 60 is "way too many," according to Gilles Meloche, the Penguins goaltending coach and a former NHL veteran goalie.

"It's not good for a goalie," Meloche said. "It's not good for the team."

There is considerable statistical evidence to support that last part.

Since the NHL expanded beyond six original clubs for the 1967-68 season, only three goaltenders have appeared in at least 70 games during a regular season and guided their club to the Stanley Cup final, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Two of them are Hall-of-Famers. Bernie Parent and Grant Fuhr, did it once each. The other, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, should pass Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy as the NHL's all-time win leader this season.

Since 1995-96, the first of 11 consecutive regular seasons in which he has appeared in at least 70 games, Brodeur has won the Cup twice and lost once in the final. The Devils have failed to win a playoff round after five of his 70-plus regular seasons, including twice over the past four years. They've won only one round twice.

"It's tough to say if playing so many games hurts you in the playoffs," said Sabourin, who served as backup to Roberto Luongo with Vancouver in 2006-07. "But it's something you have to consider."

Luongo has played in at least 70 games in four regular seasons. Only the 2006-07 Canucks squad made the playoffs, and it lost in the second round.

Early playoff exits are the rule, at least for most of the past two decades, for elite goaltenders that play in at least 70 regular-season games.

The Sharks lost in the second round last season, which followed Nabokov's career-high appearance total. The Chicago Blackhawks failed to win a playoff round in 1991, 1993 and 1994 -- postseasons that followed goaltender Ed Belfour playing in at least 70 regular-season games.

Roy, a three-time Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, never played in 70 games. His best was 68 during the 1993-94 regular season, and his Montreal Canadiens lost in the first playoff round.

Dominik Hasek, a six-time Vezina winner as the game's best goalie, took Buffalo to the Eastern Conference final in a 1998 postseason that followed his only 70-plus game regular season.

"It's too much mentally to play 70 regular-season games and then go up a level for the playoffs," Meloche said. "Brodeur is the exception, and he's not been sharp in some of those playoffs."

As Meloche noted, the Penguins have sizable stake invested in Fleury, who signed a seven-year contract worth $35 million in July. Keeping him ready for the playoffs, which he used last spring to cement his status as one of the sport's best young goalies, makes sense.

Fleury's current pace (60 appearances) is "about the right amount of games for a goalie," Meloche said.

Fleury, Sabourin and San Jose backup Brian Boucher agreed. They said an NHL goalie could probably play 65 games effectively, but...

"Even that seems like a lot," Boucher said. "I don't think it's the norm for guys to play that many games.

"If a guy wants to do it and is able to do it, I guess you let him do it. But realistically, it's a lot to ask."

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