No player began the 2013-14 NHL season under as much pressure as Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Just five months removed from riding the postseason pine, the 29-year-old netminder has rebounded brilliantly. It’s about time he gets the credit he deserves.
Since back-stopping the Pens to a championship in 2009, Fleury has been the scape-goat for numerous playoff letdowns. He was replaced by backup Tomas Vokoun after getting shelled by the New York Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs back in May. The previous year, he was embarrassed by the Philadelphia Flyers who beat him 26 times in just six games. After posting a sub-.900 save-percentage in each of the last four postseasons, Fleury’s future as Pittsburgh’s franchise goalie was cast into doubt.
Eight years Fleury’s senior, Vokoun threatened to hang on to the job he won back in May. With a 9-13 career postseason record, the 37-year-old was hardly an ideal option, but his candidacy for the full-time starting gig illustrated the low opinion of Fleury in the Steel City.
When Vokoun suffered a life-threatening and potentially career-ending series of blood clots during the preseason, Pittsburgh fans held their collective breath. It would once again be Fleury in position to potentially waste Pittsburgh’s legendary offensive talent with more awful goaltending. However, Vokoun’s long-term absence gave Fleury one more shot at redemption, and so far he has made the most of it.
The top pick in the 2003 draft has gone 8-2 in ten starts, and those wins haven’t been all about offense. So far this season, the Penguins eighth ranked defense has actually outperformed their tenth ranked offense. In fact, Fleury’s .928 save-percentage and 1.79 goals-against average will mark career-highs if he can maintain them.
While the numbers will likely drop somewhat over the course of the season, they are nonetheless encouraging. Fleury has only surrendered three or more goals on three occasions this season, and the Penguins won two of those games. His single-game save-percentage has dipped below .909 just twice in October, and his goals-against average has improved by more than half a goal since last season.
At the opposite end of the rink, little has changed about the Penguins’ offense. Sidney Crosby predictably leads the NHL with 20 points in just 12 games. Meanwhile, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin are off to strong starts. If they continue to score at an elite rate, Fleury looks like he will be up to the task in net.
Unlike many contending teams, the Penguins don’t demand elite play from their goaltender. Fleury doesn’t need to be Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick or Tuukka Rask. He simply has to avoid the meltdown, and so far this season he has done that.
If Fleury sustains anything close to his current level of play, the Penguins will be serious contenders for the Presidents’ Trophy. The Pens will ride him from here on out considering backup Jeff Zatkoff is 0-2 in his only starts, and right now he really deserves that playing time. Even during a 15-game win streak last March, Fleury started just eight games. He’ll be in net for almost all of Pittsburgh’s next big string of victories, and it looks like he’ll be a driving force behind those wins this time around.
Perhaps a few more sterling performances could even get him a call from Team Canada. The defending Olympic gold-medalists are considering the likes of Carey Price, Mike Smith and Roberto Luongo for Sochi, but Fleury’s recent efforts certainly ought to put him in the conversation. His history of playoff flops makes him a long shot, but Price and Luongo aren’t without their own foibles in the clutch.
Current front-runners Price and Luongo went a combined 1-5 in the playoffs last spring and were both benched on the way to first round exits. Unlike Fleury, neither has put their name on the Stanley Cup. Luongo reached the finals in 2011 but produced one of the most horrific implosions in recent memory.
Fleury still has plenty to prove, but he has offered sufficient reason for confidence. With no quality alternatives available, Fleury demands the trust of his teammates and coaches. He should get at least one more playoff opportunity to rescue his legacy. Don’t be surprised if he makes a third trip to the finals this season and joins Martin Brodeur as the only active goalie to start for multiple Cup-winning teams.
He won’t be able to silence all of his critics until the playoffs come again, but he is doing an excellent job in a difficult situation right now.