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Will Pens save Fleury or vice-versa'

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Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003

Let the record show that Marc-Andre Fleury's NHL debut was just like Mario Lemieux's in 1984: The puck went in on his very first shot.

The catch, of course, is that Fleury is a goaltender.

But if you think his debut Friday was any less spectacular than Lemieux's, you'd be mistaken.

It was, in fact, surreal.

Picture this: With 2:20 left, the Penguins were trailing the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and getting outshot 48-10, but the fans were on their feet, waving white towels and roaring as if it were the Stanley Cup final.

Fleury had just poke-checked Esa Pirnes on a penalty shot.

Fleury gave the fans reason to cheer and surely will again. This team could go 0-41 on home ice and still sell tickets if other nights are anything like this one.

That's the sort of difference Fleury could make.

He not only stopped 46 of 48 shots in a 3-0 loss (the Kings scored an empty-netter), he stopped the Penguins on several occasions. That's how poorly they played.

Scary thought: What if J.S. Aubin had been in goal?

Obviously, Fleury's a star. But the team's performance last night -- it's only fair to point out it hadn't played in 12 days -- prompts the following question: Why on earth would the Penguins want to subject him to this?

Before you answer, "Because they have no choice," know this: If they don't improve radically in the next several weeks, GM Craig Patrick will have to at least consider the following question:

Should he spare Fleury, 18, the agony and possible long-term psychological damage of playing behind this defense?

Fleury has to play 25 games in order to be eligible for certain bonuses, such as an .890 save percentage and a 3.25 goals-against average, Patrick said.

If Fleury hits two of his six bonuses -- the save percentage and GAA are the most attainable ones -- a $3 million bonus will be triggered.

The other choice is to send him back to junior before he plays 25 games.

Under normal circumstances, Patrick's decision would be easy. Get the kid out of here, with a police escort, and save him for another day.

One problem: Fleury might be the biggest reason to watch this team.

He was the only reason last night.

There aren't a handful of NHL goaltenders with feet quick enough to make the sort of skate save Fleury made on Alexander Frolov. He gave Ziggy Palffy the five-hole on a second-period breakaway, then shut it like a car door.

Only Eric Belanger's perfect shot (on a short-handed breakaway, off a Dick Tarnstrom turnover) 38 seconds into the game and a screened deflection beat Fleury.

Yes, Patrick has to keep him. Anybody who saw the kid play last night will want to see him again and again. Others will join them. Their money will help pay his bonuses.

Here's hoping Fleury's psyche is as well-honed as his athletic skill.

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