Penguins goaltender Fleury shouldering a heavy workload
Even though a strong possibility exists that the Penguins will meet the Rangers at some point during this spring's Stanley Cup playoffs, New York's most valuable player offered some polite advice to coach Dan Bylsma and his staff.
Give Marc-Andre Fleury a break.
Fleury is on pace to play 70 games for the first time in his career, and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist believes goaltenders who reach that range — he would know — simply aren't as effective in the postseason.
"If you look at the last 10 or 15 years," Lundqvist said, "not a lot of goalies that played over 60 or 65 games have won (the Stanley Cup). It's tough. It's a long year."
Lundqvist's math is correct.
During the past 10 seasons, only one goaltender — New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in 2003 — played more than 70 games and won a Stanley Cup. In fact, six of the past 10 Stanley Cup winners played fewer than 60 games during the regular season.
Lundqvist has reached 70 games in four of his six seasons with the Rangers. In those four seasons, the Rangers won only two playoff series and never surpassed the second round.
Coach John Tortorella and Lundqvist decided this season that the goaltender would play less this season. That decision has paved the way to Lundqvist's best season.
"It's helped him that he's not playing all the time," Tortorella said. "It allows him to work on his game at a higher level in practice. His practices suffered because he was playing too many games. He wasn't able to practice at the proper level."
Fleury might not be practicing much at all down the stretch.
Bylsma's plight isn't a simple one. Keeping Fleury fresh is important, of course, but given backup goalie Brent Johnson's struggles, giving Fleury a rest is a dicey proposition for Bylsma.
"What we're doing now is managing his practice time," Penguins goaltender coach Gilles Meloche said. "We'll let him recover the day after games."
Bylsma and Meloche maintain that Fleury isn't too far off the schedule that was originally devised by the coaching staff — "Maybe we're just one or two games off," Meloche said — but the reality is that he has never played this many games.
"It's a long season," Fleury said, "especially when you play until June. I think every year is different, every goalie is different. I just take it one day at a time."
Johnson played well in two recent starts, a 1-0 loss in Toronto and a 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay. However, he was yanked early in the second period of a 6-2 setback in Buffalo on Sunday, and he wasn't available for Tuesday's game against the Rangers because of an illness.
It isn't known when Fleury is scheduled to sit again, but this weekend makes sense. The Penguins host surging Tampa Bay on Saturday and entertain Columbus — the league's worst team — 24 hours later. Such a meeting cries for the backup goalie to play.
But then, Bylsma has been calling Fleury's name like never before this season.
"I feel good though," Fleury said. "Nothing different from other years."
Meloche said this is the most consistent season of Fleury's career and noted that the team's rivalry-heavy schedule down the stretch — the Penguins play the Rangers, Devils and Bruins twice each late in the season and will face the Flyers three more times -- will keep Fleury hungry.
"Against the Flyers and Rangers," Meloche said, "he's a little more eager. He's always up for those challenges."
The biggest challenge of all for Fleury might be producing the energy to maintain that intensity when the playoffs arrive.
"I played almost every game before," Lundqvist said. "It took some time to adjust to this, but I feel like it's paying off for me."
With the Penguins comfortably locked into a playoff spot but still in a battle for seeding, Fleury doesn't have the luxury of resting as often as Lundqvist.
One thing in Fleury's favor is his age. Only 27, he has time on his side. Older goaltenders often thrive in the playoffs; seven of the past 10 Stanley Cup winning goaltenders have been 30 or older.
Still, Fleury's stamina this spring will remain an issue.
"I think he likes to play a lot," Lundqvist said. "I always felt good going down the stretch because you're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and you get excited. But I felt great in the last few years, and we only played one or two rounds."