Despite struggles in last year's playoffs, it's still Fleury's show
Rarely in Penguins history has a season hinged so much on one man.
And rarely has that man's future been so difficult to handicap.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury finds himself in the spotlight like never before, his career with the Penguins perhaps at a crossroads.
Fleury insists he is confident.
“I feel like I've gotten better as camp went on,” Fleury said. “My timing, everything, feels pretty good right now.”
Fleury didn't figure to feel intense pressure until April. Instead, he could be feeling it much earlier.
Penguins backup goalie Tomas Vokoun won't be ready to begin the season because of recent surgery to dissolve a blood clot. His return date is unknown.
Jeff Zatkoff, who starts the season as Fleury's backup, possesses no NHL experience.
The Penguins are OK with Fleury leading the way. In fact, his teammates seem to prefer it that way.
Although Fleury is coming off four consecutive playoff seasons that generally saw him play poorly, there remains little question that the locker room is strongly behind the former first overall pick. From stars to the fourth-liners, everyone has Fleury's back.
“I think he's a great goalie,” center Sidney Crosby said. “And I think he's going to do well this season.”
Crosby has long been a supporter of Fleury's. When the goaltender struggled mightily at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Crosby came to his defense, making it clear that Fleury — and not red-hot Brent Johnson — should be the team's starter.
Fleury did not look sharp during training camp, but his teammates don't mind.
“We all believe in that guy,” Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “I mean, he's just so talented. He's a great goalie.”
Fleury's September probably didn't inspire the goaltender with much positive energy. In the first scrimmage on the first day of training camp, Fleury faced five shots. He only stopped one of them.
Fleury didn't play especially well in the preseason opener in Columbus, nor was he sharp in another preseason contest against the Blue Jackets. He did, however, play well in the exhibition season finale in Detroit, where his save five years ago with one second remaining clinched the Stanley Cup.
“We still have confidence in him,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “There is no doubt about that.”
Zatkoff has performed well during his AHL career but remains an unknown commodity at the NHL level.
Vokoun, when healthy, is one of the NHL's finest backups. Before training camp began, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma referred to Fleury and Vokoun as the “best goalie tandem” in the NHL.
Vokoun's presence as a backup, to say nothing of his invaluable role as a team leader, could go a long way toward making this season a successful one for the Penguins.
Fleury regaining his old form, when he was viewed as hockey's finest big-game goalie, wouldn't be a bad thing for the Penguins.
One thing is certain: Fleury will receive the call early and often this season.
“I'm looking forward to it,” he said.