Penguins' goalie Fleury is back, but not old self
Marc-Andre Fleury is lower than ever before as he tries to reach an old high.
So far, it's working.
Fleury again looks like the Penguins' franchise goaltender, though not like the one replaced four games into their most recent Stanley Cup playoff run.
“There's been a few little adjustments that he's made,” Mike Bales said. “The thing that surprised me was how quickly he could adjust — different concepts, in-game stuff, how you want to play off your post.”
Since he was 7, Fleury's instinct was to stand tall and hug the post at its highest point. He is now 29, and he's keeping his trademark white leg pads low off the post at the suggestion of Bales, in his first season as the team's goaltending coach.
Bales' objective is to best position Fleury for wrap-around attempts and to have him better prepared to spring — as teammates say only he can — across the blue paint of the crease so that he can smother loose pucks.
Basically, Bales said, he is trying to make use of Fleury's athleticism.
Funny, Fleury thought when Bales approached him with that concept in training camp, but nobody had put it that way to him before.
“He doesn't want to change everything about me,” Fleury said. “He lets me be me, but there's some little things that make a difference.”
The Penguins have an eight-point lead atop the Eastern Conference despite an NHL-worst 289 man-games lost to injury. They have a top-five offense and top-10 defense and a couple of top individual scorers in captain Sidney Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz. Not a lot is different from last regular season.
That also is true with Fleury. He is 27-10-4 with a .917 save percentage, compared to 23-8-1 with a .916 save percentage from the lockout-shortened past season.
But there is something different about Fleury, and it's subtle enough to be missed on most days.
“He seems extremely comfortable,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, the only Penguin to spend more time with the organization.
It might have helped Fleury to focus on that post.
Up, down and up
In the playoffs, Fleury has won the Stanley Cup and played in another Final. He has won more games (200) over the past six seasons than any goalie. He also has won only one playoff series since that last-second save on Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom in the 2009 Cup Final and has a sub-.900 save percentage each of the past four postseasons.
In the regular season, only four goalies have won more games than Fleury's 276 by the age of 29. Of the 11 to win at least 250 games by that age, Fleury has played in the fourth-fewest at 506.
General manager Ray Shero considered all of this when assessing his club's most important position after Fleury was benched in Round 1 of the playoffs.
“Marc's won a lot of games for us,” Shero said. “He's been a big reason we keep getting to the playoffs, which gets harder to do every year in this league. You can't just ignore that he gives you 35 wins every year.
“Of course, you want to win them at the right time, but the right time is now.”
Fleury has again provided regular-season steadiness, though the Penguins have rarely asked him to do so much. He is headed for a career-best 67 starts – two more than he made seven years ago.
Tomas Vokoun, a veteran of 300 wins, took over for Fleury last postseason but has not played a game since because of a blood clot. The Penguins' new backup, Jeff Zatkoff, had never played an NHL game before his 10 this season.
“You can probably make a strong case that he's been our most important player this year,” coach Dan Bylsma said of Fleury. “It's probably not probably, actually. He has been that player for us.”
Teammates, coaches, management — even opponents such as New York Islanders center John Tavares — have said they are not surprised to see Fleury performing so well this season.
That is especially true at Consol Energy Center, where he is 17-2-0 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Seeing a sports psychologist over the summer has helped him “channel things,” Fleury said. Also, said his longtime agent Allan Walsh, the Penguins were of “huge help” last June when Shero and Bylsma each declared him the No. 1 goalie going forward after the playoffs.
That support eliminated any reason to worry about a trade or compliance buyout in the summer so that Fleury could get the most out of his work with the sports psychologist, he said.
Fleury already had accepted that he needed to try something — “anything,” he said — because he suspected the next season was pivotal for his future with the Penguins. It was the one before the final year of his current deal, and the NHL labor contract allows players to sign extensions in their final contractual season. All of that collided with Fleury trying to figure out fatherhood after the birth of his daughter, Estelle.
He will not divulge his psychologist's name, but labeled him “a good guy.” Sessions were “few” and stopped before training camp, but Fleury said they remain “in touch.” The takeaway seems simple enough, but it has proven a difficult transition for Fleury, who said he still sometimes “wants to please everybody.”
“I've got to find ways, when people say I had a bad game, to not worry about it,” he said. “That's it, really. I've got to say, ‘Forget it. Onto the next one.' ”
Gilles Meloche, Fleury's previous goalie coach, is a fellow French Canadian and friend. Bales is neither, and Fleury admitted their growing relationship is “not there yet” when it comes to discussing his deepest doubts, specifically about whether he can again win the Cup.
“I believe I can do it again,” Fleury said. “It's tough. There are a lot of good teams.”
There are few, though, led by three players drafted either first or second overall. Evgeni Malkin, a No. 2 pick in 2004, was sandwiched between the No. 1 overall selections of Fleury and captain Crosby.
There also are few goalies of Fleury's pedigree, and that includes playoffs. He is one of two active goalies (Brodeur, 2000-01) to have steered teams to back-to-back Cup Finals. Only Brodeur (113) has more playoff victories than Fleury's 45, which are tied with Tony Esposito for the 18th most in league history.
The New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist has won 30 playoff games — and never his last one.
“If you find any goalie that's won a Stanley Cup, he's an elite goalie,” center Brandon Sutter said. “You can't argue against that. It's the difference maker as far as (players are) concerned.”
At least one person within the Penguins would prefer the words “Stanley Cup” never find their way into discussions with Fleury.
“We don't talk about that,” Bales said. “But maybe sometimes you do need a little bit of a reminder of what you've done and who you are.”
Bales, who Zatkoff described as “really personable” and of whom Fleury said is “great at seeing technical stuff, positioning,” is not trying to serve as his goaltenders' de facto psychologist. However, he has said these words to Fleury, and promised he will again if necessary: “Keep in mind what you are. You're an elite-level goaltender.”
Finding a way
Fleury said his lowest times are not limited to his last four postseasons. He noted winning the Cup after losing it on home ice the year before on a goal he would like to have back, just like that fluky one that went against him to cost Canada the World Junior Championship in 2004. He did not play a minute in the last Olympics and was not invited to a camp by Hockey Canada in advance of the upcoming Games.
Fleury has wondered if wearing his emotions, as Meloche often said he does, is helpful for his play and the perception of him as a player.
“Should I be a little more cocky?” Fleury said. “That's not me, though. It's tough because you see some goalies are like that, and you think, ‘Maybe that's how it should be.' ”
Patrick Roy won the Cup four times, and Fleury always thought he was “cocky in a good way.” At the same age Fleury is now, Roy had won one more regular-season game and had played in as many Finals — though, Roy had won both of his.
From afar, Fleury has reminded former Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig of himself.
“Because I wasn't cocky or arrogant, I had to develop some inner strength,” Kolzig said.
Kolzig, now the Capitals' goaltending coach, said strength was needed because the playoffs have a way of changing everything for a goalie. His 41-win, Vezina Trophy-season in 2000 ended with a humiliating first-round exit to the Penguins that included a 7-0 loss in Game 1. He failed to win a game in a lone Cup Final appearance in 1998.
“I didn't consider those seasons write-offs based on those results,” Kolzig said. “There needs to be a little more emphasis on the seven months leading up to the playoffs and having that stability back there.”
That is not the way the hockey world works, but Fleury spent this weekend thinking only of a home start against Florida on Monday as opposed to what awaits him when the Penguins' open a potential career re-defining playoffs for him.
“The position I play is what have you done lately,” Fleury said. “I've got to find ways just to … mentally, think about different little things that I want to do.”
Bales said he sees daily evidence of Fleury finding that way.
He pointed to the Flower that is low off the post.