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Starkey: Fleury wins Round 1

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

After the second period Monday night, longtime Penguins general manager Jack Riley tapped a reporter in the press box and said, "Do you think the goaltenders are the two best players on the ice?"

It was more statement than question — and it was plenty accurate.

Marc-Andre Fleury (Penguins) and Cam Ward (Carolina Hurricanes) weren't just making the routine saves in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference final, they were making the mind-blowers.

Open nets close fast when these two guys are around.

If Crosby-Ovechkin was the headline act of the previous round, Fleury-Ward tops the marquee for this one (OK, maybe it shares that space with the Staal brothers).

An early flurry, er, Fleury, went a long way toward deciding the Penguins' 3-2 victory.

Carolina came in as the only team in the playoffs with an unbeaten record (5-0) when scoring first. They pressed hard at the start, but Fleury wouldn't budge. He flashed a glove at 7:36 to snatch Tuomo Ruutu's two-foot attempt and made several other sparkling stops, including one on Joe Corvo's blast from the slot at 8:20.

Less than a minute later, Miroslav Satan scored on a breakaway to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead.

"I think (Fleury's) saves energized us," said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. "I think it could have been lopsided for either team if not for the way those two guys played."

The Penguins felt like they escaped with a victory on a night when they did not turn in a Grade-A performance.

"We didn't get the start we wanted to," said team captain Sidney Crosby. "Usually, when you're at home, you're not talking about weathering the storm, but (Fleury) did that for us."

The best of Fleury's 23 saves might have been on Chad LaRose at 16:11 of the first, when he used his blocker to thwart LaRose's redirect toward an open side of the net.

Some might say Ward should have had Evgeni Malkin's backhander at 10:41 of the first, the one that snuck through his armpit, but know this: Most players don't emerge from a crowd and fire a backhander like a snap shot, which is precisely what Malkin did.

Ward (28 saves) made up for it in the second period when he robbed Bill Guerin twice, including once where he flicked out his glove after Guerin was set up by a perfect Crosby pass.

"I look at it as a challenge," Ward said of matching saves with his counterpart. "I gotta be able to respond."

Carolina finally beat Fleury on a LaRose goal at 13:04 of the second period. Ward kept it 2-1 when he kicked out a right pad to stop Malkin on a breakaway at 7:25 of third.

But a little more than five minutes later, Ward blinked. Penguins defenseman Philippe Boucher beat him through some traffic with a long wrist shot, the puck skittering under Ward's left pad and barely crossing the goal line.

The 'Canes — who've made a habit of late comebacks — cut it to 3-2 with 1:26 left, when Corvo beat Fleury on a deflection after Fleury lost his stick was playing with teammate Rob Scuderi's.

The Hurricanes swarmed after that. Eric Staal nearly scored on a close-range attempt, but Fleury covered the puck with his "bum," as he put it. The shot might have gone wide, anyway. It was hard to tell.

"He didn't get good wood on it, so it just went back at me," Fleury said. "Little bit lucky."

Yeah, but sometimes it's better to be good than lucky. Fleury was that and then some last night.




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