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Starkey: Fans helped Fleury turn it around

| Sunday, March 20, 2011

A month into the season, he was no longer Marc-Andre Fleury. He was Marc-Andre flustered.

His confidence was crushed. His critics were howling.

"That time felt like forever," Fleury recalls. "It felt like everybody wanted to run me over with their car."

Not that they would have hit him; Fleury was letting everything past him. His numbers were frightening: a 1-6 record with a 3.54 goals-against average and an .853 save percentage that ranked 40th in a 30-team league.

"My toughest time in hockey," he said then.

What made the slump especially disturbing was that it came on the heels of a subpar 2009-10 season that ended with Fleury flopping in Game 7 against Montreal. He'd even been mock-cheered by a smattering of home "fans" in a first-round series against Ottawa.

In their season-ending exit meeting, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma let Fleury know, in no uncertain terms, that his performance had been unacceptable. His practice and game-day routines were altered when the team reconvened in September. He had a fabulous camp.

Then came a season-opening loss to the Flyers, followed by a groundhog-day disaster against Montreal, as the Canadiens scored two goals in the final 2:12 to steal a 3-2 win. Fleury began to flounder, forcing Bylsma to alter the goaltending plan he had mapped out in camp.

"As an athlete, a lot of times, your performance has to do with your head," Fleury says. "I had my best training camp, but then I lost one tough game, then another tough game, and then you start doubting."

On Nov. 6 in Phoenix, Bylsma gave Fleury a surprise start only to pull him after two goals in the first seven minutes.

That would be rock bottom.

Something wonderful and completely unexpected happened in Fleury's next start, Nov. 12 against Tampa Bay at the Consol Energy Center. In a scene that recalled Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final from two years earlier, fans began chanting Fleury's name before the national anthem.

A few stray voices morphed into a rolling thunder ... Fleury! Fleury!

"Something I'll never forget," Bylsma says.

The Penguins allowed just 16 shots that night. Fleury stoned the Lightning in a 5-1 win and hasn't looked back. His numbers since the Phoenix meltdown, going into today's game against the New York Rangers: 30-11-5 with a 2.18 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

Fleury deserves most of the credit for his incredible rebound. But he also is a function of the solid play in front of him, and after a rocky start, his teammates — particularly the new ones on defense — have settled nicely into Bylsma's system.

It didn't hurt that team captain Sidney Crosby, late in Fleury's slump, threw his support behind the goalie. Crosby said the best way for Fleury to break out of it was to play a string of games.

Just don't forget the fans. There is a segment that will always turn on Fleury at the first sign of trouble. But if you believe in positive vibes — and how could you not in a place called the Energy Center• — then you have to believe the spontaneous gesture of goodwill before the Tampa game, coming as it did at Fleury's lowest moment, helped till the grounds for a turnaround.

Can fans influence an athlete's performance?

Ex-Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso didn't think so. I remember interviewing Barrasso with another reporter after a long-ago game in Phoenix and wondering if the raucous crowd had provided a challenge.

"This is pro sports," Barrasso snapped. "We don't give a (bleep) about the crowd."

Tell that to Fleury. He smiles widely as he recounts the night his monthlong blister broke.

"To have the crowd behind me that night gave me a boost," he says. "For sure."

Fleury's horrible first month likely will cost him a shot at the NHL's goaltender awards and the Hart Trophy for league MVP, but make no mistake: He is the Penguins' MVP, and it's not close. He has been their rock in a campaign marked by calamity.

Flustered no more, he's also their best chance for a lengthy playoff run.

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