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Fleury on pace for career year at season's midpoint

| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 9:30 p.m.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury eyes the puck during the third period against the Canadiens on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Montreal.

After he turned away 33 shots, including 17 in the third period, and garnered the No. 1 star designation in Saturday's 3-1 win in Montreal, Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the Penguins' locker room to face a swarm of French-speaking reporters.

While the media members sought thoughts from the man known for years by the French-oriented nickname, “Flower,” teammates and the Penguins coach spoke simply and admiringly of “Marc.”

“It was a hell of a save by Marc,” forward Patric Hornqvist said of a third-period stop on a screen-assisted P.K. Subban slap shot. “But that's why we've got him. He's one of the best goalies in the league, and we're thankful for that.”

Flowers wilt. Fleury, the Penguins' hope, will not, particularly with his numbers near or at career highs with the regular season halfway complete.

In the first 41 games for the Penguins, perhaps no one player or thing fit the definition of elite as often as the 31-year-old goaltender. Even a concussion, the first of Fleury's NHL career, failed to send the Quebec native's season into a downward spiral.

With a steady dose of Eastern Conference games coming up on the schedule and with few of them on consecutive nights, the Penguins will find few people who would question using Fleury as much as possible in hopes of gaining ground on teams higher up in the standings. But coach Mike Sullivan indicated an all-Fleury, all-the-time approach is not on the team's agenda.

“We've penciled in games for (Jeff Zatkoff) moving forward,” Sullivan said. “He'll certainly get some time. Marc, he's just coming off an injury, hasn't gotten much time to play in the last little while here, so we felt it was important to get him in some games so he can establish some momentum for himself.”

Zatkoff and Matt Murray, who moved up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and started four games while Fleury recovered from the concussion, kept the Penguins moving in a positive direction in late December. Each of their save percentages, .926 and .938, was comparable to Fleury's on a small-sample basis. But Fleury gave his teammates no reason to shift faith elsewhere.

Through 29 games, Fleury's five-on-five save percentage, .9378, ranked second behind his .9392 percentage in 2007-08, when he appeared in just 35 games.

Fleury also faced just 28.87 shots per 60 minutes in 2007-08.

His excellence this season has come despite seeing 31.23 shots per 60 minutes, the second highest rate of his career behind 2005-06's 31.53.

Since returning from his concussion, Fleury frequently found himself busiest late in games in which the Penguins led. Both the Canadiens on Saturday and the New York Islanders, who lost 5-2 to the Penguins on Jan. 2, pelted Fleury in the final period.

“I don't think it's easy,” Kris Letang said of defending when the Penguins are up big. “I think you get too comfortable, and you kind of sigh.”

Fleury shrugged off the Canadiens' flurry of activity.

“I thought all night, we didn't give up too much,” he said. “I saw a lot of blocked shots from the guys. It was good work to hold on to the end.”

What teammates call Fleury has changed. But whether they refer to him as “Flower” or “Marc,” they trust he will continue to flourish as the second half of the season begins.

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@triibweb.comor via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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