Kovacevic: Don't abandon Fleury ... not this time

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 11:27 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Marc-Andre Fleury had to know it was dumb. He had to know he had nothing to gain by abandoning his net.

And there he went.

And there went, with Brandon Dubinsky's simple flick into 24 square feet of untended twine, the Penguins' lead, with 22.5 seconds left.

And there went, with the deafening cannon and the din of the Nationwide Arena crowd, all that cool, all that composure Fleury had shown to that point of this otherwise chaotic Stanley Cup playoff series.

And there went …

Oh, you saw it.

“The puck just dropped,” Fleury said of Nick Foligno's 55-foot wrister that somehow fluttered by him 2:49 into overtime for a 4-3 Columbus victory. “He shot it through our guy's legs, and it seemed to drop right in front of me.”

That wasn't all that dropped at that moment. This one was excruciating even by the extraordinary bar Fleury has set for excruciation in his playoff career. And it was all the more painful for its familiarity.

I mean, this is it, right?

Fleury's toast now. He's a train wreck that not even a team of the planet's most advanced sports psychologists could cure. He'll give up floater after floater in Game 5 and beyond, right up until the Penguins are eliminated and, then, spend their summer searching for another franchise goaltender.

If I know my city, the invectiveness sprayed at TV sets across Western Pennsylvania was all that and a whole lot uglier.

Well, count me out.

Don't misunderstand, please. Fleury blew it. He blew it big-time. He had no business straying from his net or conceding Foligno's shot from somewhere south of Cincinnati. He let the team down when it needed him most.

But sorry, this just doesn't come with the same feel of the Fleury we've seen flop in years past.

I remember Fleury on Long Island last spring, ramming his forehead against a cement-block wall at the back of the locker room. He was a mess of the worst kind. Dan Bylsma didn't want to turn to Tomas Vokoun, but he had no choice.

This just isn't that. Not yet, anyway.

Until the tying goal, Fleury was the Penguins' best player by a glaring margin. Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen and Brandon Sutter have done well. But Fleury had been performing at a championship level. He looked unflappable. Even in this game, he stopped 38 of 40 shots before the tying goal, and Columbus' first two goals came on a deflection and 5-on-3.

“He played a hell of a game,” Joe Vitale said. “He deserved better.”

“He was the best player on the ice,” Tanner Glass said. “It was just unlucky.”

Fleury seemed to strike a similar tone.

“It was good. It was a good game. I had like 40 shots and two goals,” he said. “Put it behind. Move on to the next one.”

Snap at that if you will. I like it.

Fleury conducted himself in a manner nothing like last spring. He took every question, chin up, voice steady.

Of the tying goal: “They dumped it in. It wasn't that hard, and I went to stop it for our D. It jumped right over my stick.”

Of how he feels: “It's 2-2. We're not in trouble here. We're all right. Let's go home. Have some good meals. Relax. Have a good practice. Get back to it Saturday.”

Of how he feels, once again: “A loss is a loss. Like I said, it's 2-2.”

Sure, Fleury had to be rattled. Anyone would be. At one point, he sat at his stall with both hands over his face.

But it didn't last.

Mario Lemieux rarely enters the Penguins locker room after games, preferring to wait outside. Not this time. He walked up to Fleury's stall, gave him a tap on the leg pad and spoke a few words in their native French. It wasn't much, but one can only imagine what it meant.

Let me be clear on this: The Penguins have no choice but to trust Fleury. Not only because an untested Jeff Zatkoff is the backup but also because … well, he's pretty much all they've had to this point.

Where were Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin after that first period?

No goals now in their past eight playoff games!

Where were the forecheckers wearing down an opponent missing two defensemen?

Where was the defense when Blue Jackets were left untouched all night?

The embarrassment here is widespread.

The guy in net ruined the ending, no question. And he has a history, also no question. But if the rest of the Penguins had put forth 59 minutes anywhere close to Fleury's, none of us would be discussing old demons.

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