Penguins hold off Flyers for win in season opener
PHILADELPHIA — Marc-Andre Fleury's nerves had his goaltending coach, well, nervous.
“It's unusual for Marc; usually he's pretty loose,” Gilles Meloche said. “So I'm pretty happy with how he played.”
Fleury made 26 saves, including several vintage sprawling ones with his club clinging to a lead, and the Penguins edged the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1, at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon.
The Penguins won despite no points from captain Sidney Crosby, who failed to score at Philadelphia for only the seventh time in 28 games.
The NHL finally bloomed after a lockout of nearly four months, and the Penguins' “Flower” did not wilt at the scene of arguably his most troubling two weeks.
Last April, Fleury allowed 26 goals, stopping only 83.4 percent of shots faced, in the Penguins' painful opening-round Stanley Cup playoffs loss to the Flyers.
Neither a teammate nor coach placed full blame, or even much, on Fleury. They contended he was done in by exhaustion, the grinding result of unreliable play from Penguins' backup goalies forcing coach Dan Bylsma to ride Fleury virtually the entire second half.
Still, Fleury said he had better in him, and he knew the start of this truncated 48-game NHL season could set a tone for him and his club.
He knew that facing the Flyers meant a lot more than anybody wanted to admit.
“I was a little bit worried,” he said. “The last time I played here wasn't good, and it doesn't feel like so long ago.”
It was not so long ago that Fleury was the great hope of a struggling franchise. Craig Patrick, the Penguins' former general manager, traded up to select him first overall at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Fleury has since made millions, won the Stanley Cup, earned a spot on a gold-medal Olympic team and married his childhood sweetheart. He will become a first-time father this spring.
That child will one day have a chance to say her father won more games than any goaltender in the history of the Penguins, who opened their 45th season Saturday.
Fleury, with 227 victories, passed Tom Barrasso, who played for the Penguins from 1988-2000 and won the Cup twice (1991, '92).
Not by coincidence, Fleury decided to pay homage to Barrasso this season. A likeness of a hockey card featuring Barrasso is painted on the side of the mask Fleury will wear with the Penguins' alternate dark blue uniforms.
“Somebody said I should do it because this is the year I should get it,” Fleury said this week of the Barrasso-themed mask. “I thought, ‘OK, that makes sense.' I mean, he had that record a long time.”
Not long passed Saturday before the Penguins claimed control against the Flyers.
A low point-shot from defenseman Paul Martin was deflected by right wing Tyler Kennedy, and the Penguins' led, 1-0, before five minutes had elapsed.
About three minutes later, a faceoff win by center Evgeni Malkin, who worked the circle against Flyers counterpart Sean Couturier, found the blade of right wing James Neal, whose one-timer zipped past Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov for a two-goal cushion.
Malkin won only five of 12 faceoffs, most against Couturier, a 20-year-old who pestered him during the playoffs.
This win on the draw did not surprise Bylsma.
“His success rating at the left faceoff circle with James Neal behind him is pretty high,” Bylsma said, noting Malkin's 9 percent improvement from 38.5 percent to 47.5 percent last season.
“He's really proficient in certain areas. He's done a lot more homework, studying and learning — more paying attention to it than he had three years ago.”
The Flyers cut the Penguins' lead in half on new captain Claude Giroux's tap-in goal in the second period's opening minute, but their zone dominance the rest of that frame was negated by 10 saves from Fleury.
The Flyers went 0 for 5 on the power play, including two late chances in the third period, when Fleury flashed his acrobatic form to cover loose pucks in the crease as big wingers such as Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds hacked away.
“We didn't lose because of them,” Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “We lost because of Fleury. He was really good.”
And now, Meloche predicted, Fleury is back.
“I have no doubt in my mind we're back on track,” Meloche said. “One game is all he needed. Well, this one game.”