Fleury, Pens make a statement
Coach Michel Therrien admitted Wednesday morning that he believed in statement victories.
His Penguins earned one last night.
Aided by a brilliant rebound-performance from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Fox Chapel native Bill Thomas' first goal for his hometown team, the Penguins upended the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks, 2-1, at Mellon Arena.
Captain Sidney Crosby beat San Jose goalie Brian Boucher in the third round of a shootout, and Fleury capped his 36-save effort by blanking each of San Jose's three shooters.
"To beat one of the best teams in the league - that makes for good emotions," Fleury said. "It was one of the biggest (wins) we've had. We're trying to get a little momentum going."
Don't look now, Eastern Conference playoff contenders, but the Penguins are playing like a team on a march toward the postseason.
This victory capped a 3-1-0 homestand and moved the Penguins (27-24-5, 59 points) within a point of idle Florida for the East's eighth and final playoff spot. Florida owns three games in-hand, one of which takes place tonight at Carolina - tied with the Penguins for ninth.
For the Penguins to earn a third consecutive playoff berth, Fleury must perform in a show-stopping manner similar to his effort last night.
Aside from a 3-0 loss Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings, a 26-save performance marred by admittedly poor rebound control, Fleury has over the past several weeks looked very much like a goalie worth the seven-year, $35 million contract he signed in July.
He is 8-5-1 with a .916 save percentage since Jan. 6.
Fleury just missed a second shutout over that stretch last night, allowing a third-period goal to San Jose center Joe Pavelski, his 14th, at 11:07. That goal pulled the Sharks even, 1-1.
Thomas provided his hometown team with a 1-0 lead at 18:26 of the second period.
His first goal for the Penguins was fortuitous. Thomas had won possession of the puck following an expert dump-in by winger Miroslav Satan. Thomas directed the puck toward the front of San Jose's cage from behind the goal line, and it deflected behind Boucher after hitting veteran defenseman Rob Blake.
"It was exciting, one of those ones you always hope for and you don't know if it's ever going to come," Thomas said. "(Satan) made a great play. ... he chipped it through, I was driving, looking for (center Jordan Staal) and (Blake) got his stick in the way, and obviously I got a good bounce to catch the goalie off-guard.
"Guys like (Crosby) are going to score the big goals here. They're the one that are going to be in the big situations. I know my role. I was just fortunate that my opportunity gave us a goal to put us up, 1-0."
In the shootout, Crosby, who played despite flu-like symptoms, bested San Jose's Boucher with a wrist shot between the leg pads - a goal-scorer's tally that can only come from a player possessing ultra-quick hands.
Rather than talk about his shootout winner, Crosby preferred to discuss the resiliency his club showed after surrendering a third-period lead.
Therrien, who called this victory "crucial," said the Penguins' territorial edge following San Jose's tying-goal was a turning point.
"We never quit," Therrien said. "Even when they scored, we never quit."
That is a hallmark of the Penguins from last season - a team that Crosby nearly led to a championship.
"Our focus was there," Crosby said. "We played two top teams back-to-back, and we proved we can play with them."