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Kovacevic: Fleury will be Pens' best goalie

| Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011

The upper wall of the Penguins' U-shaped locker room at Consol Energy Center is ringed by images of franchise icons. Mario Lemieux towers over one stall, Ron Francis over another, and the portraits wind elegantly all the way around. It's a stirring sight, one intended to inspire the present as much as it celebrates the past.

If I'm Marc-Andre Fleury, I'm already thinking about my place in that ring, which has only two goaltenders: Les Binkley, the Penguins' first, and Tom Barrasso, their most accomplished.

But then, I'm not Fleury.

"I never thought about that, really," he told me from his stall the other day, with Binkley and Barrasso in plain sight. "But this team has been around for so long, and that definitely would be a great honor, you know?"

It absolutely would. The Penguins have come a long way since Binkley first took the crease in 1967. Today, on the eve of their home opener against Florida, they're the NHL's marquee brand in the United States, a three-time champion that has been blessed with stars.

If Fleury is remembered someday as our city's greatest performer at hockey's most important position, it would be a tremendous feat. And that day, I believe, will come.

It isn't there yet, though.

Anyone who encountered Barrasso on a personal level during his dozen years in Pittsburgh would bristle at rating him above Fleury in any walk of life. Barrasso was abrasive in the best of moods, outright belligerent in the worst. Fleury is, by contrast, pure gold as a human being. It should be supremely easy to pull for him in that regard alone.

But numbers don't lie: Barrasso leads the Penguins in career victories by a 226-186 margin over Fleury, in career shutouts by 22-19 and — most important, I'd say — in raising the Stanley Cup by 2-1.

Fleury is bound to take over in victories, shutouts and most other categories. He still has four years left on his current contract, and he'll have been here 11 seasons by the time it expires. But the Cup will be the greatest challenge. It always is. And that's why Barrasso could hold the edge in some eyes even if Fleury ends up owning every other distinction.

Then again, maybe it will all come in one fell swoop this winter, if you look at how all the stars are aligned for Fleury.

He'll turn 27 next month, just entering his prime.

His offense will take a ton of pressure off him, especially if Sidney Crosby returns.

His defense is so deep, the system so disciplined that coach Dan Bylsma has set a stunning target of limiting opponents to 200 goals.

His team is a Cup contender in every sense.

Most important, the player known to his teammates as "Flower" is only now finding full bloom.

The flopping Fleury is gone, now steady and controlled. Watch his skates, and they still go post to post faster than any goaltender in the league, but they seldom stray outside the blue. Watch his upper body, which used to slump forward, and his chest and shoulders stay tall and square to the shooter.

"Those things are what we've been working on for five years," Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said. "Marc is so quick that he used to do too much. He lets the puck come to him now. He knows he doesn't have to chase it all over the place."

"It might look like I'm not trying as hard," Fleury said, "but I think that's good."

It would be good, too, if Fleury avoided an early swoon. Brent Johnson had to bail him out early last season before he went on to carry the Penguins in the stars' absence and post a career-best 2.32 goals-against. So far, all's well: Fleury allowed six goals in the opening victories at Vancouver and Calgary.

"I'd like to be consistent the whole way, but it's such a long season," Fleury said. "There aren't many guys who go through a season without a rough stretch. I'm just going to try to be at my best every night, give the team a chance."

Any numerical goals?

"I'd like 40 wins. That's a big number, a good number."

With that, the interview was over, and I was heading for the locker-room exit when Fleury called across: "How many wins did Barrasso have• Do you know?"

You need 40 more, kid.

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