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Starkey: Fleury's future at stake

| Tuesday, April 15, 2014, 10:45 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Flyers' Mark Streit celebrates his overtime goal behind Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on Saturday, April 12, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Marc-Andre Fleury's career with the Penguins has reached a crossroads.

Fleury turns 30 in November (we're all gettin' old). He has one year left on his contract. His postseason performance, beginning Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, figures to dictate his future.

One has to believe that if Fleury recaptures his playoff form of 2008 and '09, the Penguins will respond with a contract offer this summer.

If he falters — if he puts up a sub-.900 save percentage for the fifth consecutive spring — management might well seek other options. They'd be fools not to.

It's a crossroads kind of postseason for pretty much everything the Penguins believe in. Coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged after practice Tuesday that his team faces more pressure with each passing year.

Fleury's at the center of it. He fields more questions than Bylsma about “the pressure.”

I wondered if the playoffs are even fun for Fleury anymore. He smiled, as always. But it's no longer the smile of a carefree child. It's the half-grin of a grown man who's been through a few things.

“It's fun when you win,” Fleury said. “It (stinks) when you lose. So try to keep winning.”

Somebody else wondered how Fleury tries to block the distractions and stay positive.

“Umm, not read too much, not watch you guys too much, and remind myself I have one more Cup than a lot of people,” Fleury said. “I know I can do it.”

Perhaps that answer provides a glimpse into the psychological approach the Penguins have taken with Fleury: Remind yourself that you've done this — that you know how to win big games.

As has been well documented, general manager Ray Shero asked Fleury to see a sports psychologist after last year's playoff meltdown. He'd asked before. This time Fleury obliged. The Penguins also hired a new goalie coach in Mike Bales and changed some of Fleury's routines and techniques.

The results, of course, can only be measured starting Wednesday. But there are differences. Fleury's style now could be described as controlled athleticism. He is tighter to his post on plays behind him — the kind that have tortured him in series like the one against the New York Islanders last season. He's less scrambly.

Fleury also is less prone to do cartwheels at practice (although he will tackle a Root Sports rinkside reporter now and again) and doesn't talk to the media on game days.

“I definitely notice a different maturity,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi, comparing this Fleury to the Fleury of five years ago.

The easiest defense of Fleury, one Shero has cited often, is to point to his regular-season win totals. He wins a ton of games. But as steeped in analytics as the Penguins have become, they surely know wins can be a misleading statistic for goalies, just as with baseball pitchers.

The truth is a lot of goalies would have won a lot of games with this team over the past five years. For proof, consider what Fleury's primary backups have done.

If we throw out Fleury's worst post-Cup season (2009-10) and his backup's worst season (Brent Johnson's injury-plagued disaster of 2011-12), this is what we get:

• Fleury: 140-63-14 (win percentage: 64.5), .916 save percentage, 2.36 goals-against average

• Backups: 48-21-6 (win percentage: 64.0), .915 save pct., 2.49 GAA

So if the question is, “How do you replace all those regular-season wins?” the answer is, “Probably pretty easily.”

It's the top line on his resume that makes Fleury unique and likely has earned him the benefit of the doubt from his bosses. The part that indicates he's won a Stanley Cup, or “one more than a lot of people.”

I'm just not sure he can survive on that any longer. Not here. I used to defend Fleury and his less-than-gaudy stats by pointing to his ability to rise to the biggest moments. That rationale doesn't fly anymore. He hasn't won a truly big game in five years.

Everybody says Fleury had a great regular season. Did he? He was 15th in goals-against average and tied for 22nd in save percentage.

No, the only thing that can set this season apart is a sterling playoff performance.

That might be the only thing that can keep Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, too.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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