Penguins grab victory at home, secure Stanley Cup playoff berth

| Friday, March 23, 2012

Marc-Andre Fleury became the NHL's first goalie to reach 40 victories this season in a 5-1 victory over the Nashville Predators that clinched a playoff spot for the Penguins on Thursday at Consol Energy Center.

His teammates don't need statistics to express their belief that Fleury, who stopped 29 of 30 shots, is the NHL's finest goalie.

"Great goaltender," center Jordan Staal said. "He's very underrated. People don't realize what he does for us."

Fleury's 40th victory evens the career-high he set during the 2007-08 season. With 224 career victories, he is only two wins shy of tying Tom Barrasso for the Penguins' all-time victory mark among goaltenders.

At only 27, he appears to only be entering his prime and figures to put the Penguins' franchise victory record out of reach.

"Usually I start the season having 40 as a goal," Fleury said.

Becoming a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which is presented to the NHL's finest goaltender, is probably a realistic goal at this point.

Count coach Dan Bylsma among those who believe Fleury deserves to be recognized by the league as one of its finest goalies. The coach bristles at the lack of recognition Fleury receives around the league and predicts that will continue to be the case.

"I think it's happened to Marc many times before," Bylsma said. "It's going to happen again this year. A lot of his accolades go unnoticed. He doesn't get a lot of credit for what he does for our team. This year, much like last year, his play in net is a real reason for our success. He's been outstanding. He's buoyed our team, gave it a confidence when we had injuries earlier this season."

The Penguins finally are healthy and suddenly look indomitable.

They have won nine straight at home and 13 of their past 14 games, again moving within one of point of the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conference lead and two points shy of the St. Louis Blues for the overall NHL lead.

And yet, the Penguins weren't even pleased with their performance, despite soundly beating one of the NHL's premier teams.

"We were just steady," Staal said.

Of course, he wasn't speaking about center Evgeni Malkin, who was a bit more than steady.

He scored two more goals, giving him 45 this season, and now leads Philadelphia's Claude Giroux by 10 points for the NHL scoring lead.

Left wings Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz and right wing Pascal Dupuis also scored for the Penguins. Right wing James Neal recorded a career-high four assists and has produced consecutive four-point games.

And yet, even on a night when Malkin was cementing his lead in the scoring race and putting the finishing touches on an MVP season, many of the Penguins spoke candidly about Fleury's value.

"He's been outstanding," left wing Steve Sullivan said. "He's a star. Tonight is a prime example. It looks like an easy game, but there were prime scoring chances that he denied. He is a star every night."

The Penguins possess more stars than perhaps any other team.

Fleury, known more for his penchant for winning games than eye-popping statistics, badly outplayed Nashville star Pekka Rinne. Both goalies were looking for their 40th win.

"I don't know why he's not mentioned (among the league's elite)," Bylsma said. "It's no mistake that he's got to 40 wins before anybody else."

Note: Defenseman Matt Niskanen left the game with an upper-body injury following a hit from Nashville right wing Jordan Tootoo. Bylsma said Niskanen is "day-to-day."

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