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Fleury set to return to post Thursday

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Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Marc-Andre Fleury admittedly is "just a goalie" - often a pretty good one, occasionally phenomenal and at times fairly average.

He's no savior, though.

Despite talent that convinced the Penguins to draft him first overall in 2003 and, this past summer, secure his services for seven seasons at $35 million, Fleury has proven that savior tag doesn't suit him.

At 16-10-4 and sixth in the Eastern Conference with 36 points, the Penguins don't need Fleury to save them Thursday, when he is expected to resume his No. 1 goalie duties at Atlanta.

However, as defenseman Rob Scuderi noted after a 6-3 loss Sunday at Philadelphia, the Penguins could "use a boost."

For that, they will turn to Fleury, who has not played since Nov. 15, when he sustained a lower-body injury in a victory over Buffalo at Mellon Arena.

"I feel pretty good," Fleury said Sunday. "The last couple of days were really good."

Added Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche: "He's a ready as he can be. Physically, he's fine, but he's not in game shape. He'll need a few days of practice."

Today will be the first of three consecutive practice days for the Penguins. They haven't had consecutive practices since Dec. 1-2, and it's showed.

The Penguins, who have lost four of five overall, are 2-4-1 this month after a 9-2-1 November that allowed them to close in on the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers.

They began Sunday six points behind the Rangers and two points down against the Flyers, who moved into second place with their win Saturday.

At 4-6-1 over their past 11 games, the Penguins need more than "a boost" from Fleury. They need him to be their stopper, as he was late last season and early during this campaign.

Despite injuries to several players, inconsistent scoring from wingers and a middle-of-the-pack power play (18.3 percent), the Penguins' most notable struggle of late has been keeping opponents off the scoreboard.

Coach Michel Therrien is found of saying three goals should rate enough for the Penguins to win games. His club has allowed at least three goals in seven of the last 11, including in each of the past four losses.

Backup goalie Dany Sabourin, world-class in many of his first 11 appearances, allowed 16 goals in his last four games, all losses. His save percentage in those contests was .864.

Prior to his injury, Fleury had registered a .856 save percentage in his previous five appearances - a significant contrast from his .933 rate over his first eight games.

"I've been working on some stuff to get back where I was at the start of the year," Fleury said. "A lot with my rebound control and movement across the crease - that's been the focus."

Last season, Fleury returned in late February from a near three-month absence due to a right high-ankle sprain, and performed at a career-best level. He went 10-2-1 over the final five weeks, posting a .966 save percentage over that span.

Fleury followed that strong stretch run with a 14-6 record and a .933 save percentage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He may have won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP had the Penguins won in the final.

The oft-forgotten part of his comeback last season is that, prior to his injury, Fleury had turned in his best work - a 4-0-0 record with a .955 save percentage.

"I felt good before the injury last year, but I felt better after I came back - more relaxed maybe," Fleury said. "I don't like being injured, but sometimes it gives you the chance to regroup, and you can come back, be fresh and play good hockey."

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