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Bylsma's tough love pays off with Fleury's performance

| Sunday, April 10, 2011

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn't know what had happened to his franchise goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury.

There were bigger problems than Fleury's numbers, though those were worrisome. So terrific during training camp, Fleury had started the season 1-6-0. He had allowed 25 goals on 170 shots.

Worse, Fleury's familiar smile hadn't been seen for weeks.

It was the morning of Nov. 12. As that evening's home game against Tampa Bay approached, it was clear something larger than two points was at stake.

Seventeen months to the day from a career-defining win in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, Fleury needed to show his coach something — that unique trait that he had seemingly mastered during five years as the Penguins' No. 1 goalie.

"My previous experience with Marc is that his response was always excellent," Bylsma said. "The perplexing part about his beginning ... that (lack of response) is what I had not seen."

A win today at Atlanta would pull the Penguins even with their 1995-96 brethren for the second-most wins in franchise history with 49. They will open the Stanley Cup playoffs at home this week, despite finishing the regular season having played 29 consecutive games without former scoring-champion centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

None of it happens had Bylsma and Fleury — candidates for the Jack Adams (top coach) and Hart (most valuable player) trophies, respectively — not survived their toughest times together despite seemingly being worlds apart.

"If it was a movie," Fleury said, "you'd be like, 'Aw, that's too good to be true.' "

A Montreal mess

Fleury looks no different technique-wise of late — 35 saves Friday night, including 3 for 3 in the shootout, during a win at the New York Islanders — than he did Nov. 6, when Bylsma pulled him after he allowed two goals on five shots at Phoenix, Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said.

Fleury's form is similar. His light, quick legs aren't any faster for pad saves. His pregame snack remains toasted bagel slices buried under peanut butter.

"Nothing has changed," Meloche said. "That one game against Montreal screwed him up in the head."

After allowing two late goals in a 3-2 home loss to the Canadiens on Oct. 9 — neither of which, defenseman Brooks Orpik says, were Fleury's fault — Fleury succumbed to mental wounds that were, by his admission, self-inflicted.

He began thinking too much, not about that loss but about a second-round playoff defeat in the spring to the Canadiens. The series ended with Fleury lasting barely a period in Game 7 and hearing the final hockey horn at Civic Arena from the bench.

So bothered was Fleury by that loss that he avoided his native Quebec Province during the summer. After a stellar training camp — "He just looks awesome," forward Max Talbot said at the time — Fleury appeared to have bounced back, as was his reputation.

With a revamped defense and new practice regimen, devised with Bylsma to render his ice time more efficient, Fleury seemed set for his best regular season.

Instead, five weeks in, he was off to a start that had those outside the organization wondering if he could recover to lead a club with Stanley Cup expectations. Hardly helpful was the perception that Bylsma didn't have his back.

Ties that bind

There is a rich irony in the presumption Bylsma mishandled Fleury by starting veteran backup Brent Johnson in seven of 12 games from Oct. 15 through Nov. 10. After all, it remains widely presumed that former coach Michel Therrien's mishandling of Fleury played a significant role in Bylsma's hiring.

Most Penguins players identified Therrien's riding of Fleury after almost every loss as the impetus for his firing Feb. 15, 2009.

Bylsma's player-friendly ways instantly earned him the anti-Therrien label, although he pulled Fleury at Washington in his fourth game as interim coach. That provided a relationship-defining moment Bylsma vividly recalls.

"I came out for the third period, and Marc stopped me in the hallway, and he apologized," Bylsma said. "I was taken aback by this person who felt he had just let his teammates down, just let me down. I was apprehensive about that situation — I'm pulling Marc-Andre Fleury, our franchise goalie — and he's almost putting me at ease."

Bylsma wanted to return the favor during the tough times this season. He just couldn't.

In the final year of his contract, Bylsma was overseeing an underachieving Cup favorite with a franchise goalie whose confidence was at an all-time low.

Tough love

Goaltenders' traditionally quirky personalities invariably stand out in hockey dressing rooms, but the Penguins' room is one in which Bylsma's personality also sets him apart.

While many outsiders were predicting doom for the Bylsma-Fleury relationship, Penguins players remained unfazed because they recognized similarities that would unify their coach and goalie.

"They have that loose, silly characteristic to them," Orpik said. "Another similarity is they both move on from bad games quickly."

Bylsma and Fleury had no choice but to quickly move on by the second week of November.

The Penguins, with Johnson in net, had squandered a two-goal lead by allowing five third-period goals in a home loss to Boston on Nov. 10. It was a rock-bottom moment, with the club at 7-8-1 and 10th place in the Eastern Conference with about 20 percent of the season complete.

Johnson was betrayed that night by poor team defense and careless decisions with the puck, as Orpik said Fleury had been during his struggles.

Two days before the Boston loss, Bylsma had publicly stated Fleury would need to earn back the starting job and would have to do so during practices. It was the latest in a series of statements about Fleury perceived publicly — and not always favorably — as tough love.

This was a page from Therrien's playbook, a manual Fleury conceded often brought out the best from him when the situation seemed most bleak.

Bylsma is convinced people outside the organization misinterpreted his feelings about Fleury.

The public wasn't aware, Bylsma and Fleury now acknowledge, that these pivotal pieces in the Penguins' puzzle were exchanging less-pointed words privately and had been since the day after the Montreal collapse in October.

"Without getting into specifics ... it wasn't always nice and polite, but we were trying to get him right, and that had nothing to do with hockey," Bylsma said. "I'll never forget those conversations."

Fleury also declined to provide specifics about those chats with Bylsma. He offered only that it was "nice to know Dan didn't always want to talk about hockey."

They talked the day after that Boston loss in November. The next morning, Fleury's smile returned. The Tampa Bay game was his to lose, only he didn't — stopping 15 of 16 shots to bring the Penguins to 8-8-1.

They are 40-17-7 since, and Fleury is responsible for 35 of those victories — an NHL-best mark during that span — on the strength of a 2.16 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, Vezina Trophy-quality statistics if extracted over the course of a full season.

"I don't know what happened. I don't know why it happened, and I'm not sure I'm even completely prepared better if something were to happen again," Bylsma said. "He had a blip. It didn't go well for what seemed like a long time.

"Looking back, it seems like a short period of time."

Final act to come

They need each other, Bylsma and Fleury. For all the passion of Crosby, the skill of Malkin and the power of Jordan Staal, the Penguins' foundation is Fleury. When he is weak, it quickly crumbles. Bylsma can't win with a pile of rubble.

It is likely no coincidence that Bylsma's masterpiece coaching performance this season started to take shape the morning of Nov. 13 — the day after Fleury's corner-turning start against Tampa Bay.

"We're all mental cases to some extent, so you need that support," said legendary New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, Fleury's boyhood idol. "Goalies are fragile. You're by yourself in there. You can't talk during a game, so you better have support of the people around you. It's so important."

Today the Penguins wrap arguably their most unbelievable regular season.

Consol Energy Center opened. HBO camera crews captured the franchise's every move leading to and through an outdoor game at Heinz Field on New Year's night. Injuries plagued the club, at one point requiring five AHL players to dress for several weeks. Headline-grabbing headshots were delivered to Crosby and by controversial winger Matt Cooke. Iconic co-owner Mario Lemieux blasted the NHL for, as he described it, failing to protect its players from intentionally malicious hits.

Were someone to make a movie about these Penguins, as Fleury hypothetically put forth, the main characters would be Bylsma and Fleury. Theirs is the narrative arc that has tied together all the team's subplots.

"That movie got better," Fleury said. "It's not over yet, but for me and Dan, the movie got better."

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