When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice on Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, much of the attention going around was focused on star players including Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin. But as the game progressed, it became clear that the deciding factor was not going to be any skaters, but goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as he engaged in a a battle with Ray Emery.
Eventually, Fleury and the Penguins lost 2-1, but this was by no means an indictment on the play between the pipes. The goaltender stopped 19 out of 21 shots, putting in yet another steady performance in what has arguably been his best season to date.
After 15 games started out of 18 total games for the Penguins, Fleury has compiled an impressive line of statistics which includes a 10-5-0 record, 2.07 GAA and .921 save percentage. This output between the pipes has made it nearly impossible to take the goalie out of the lineup, and considering that backup Tomas Vokoun is out for up to four more months because of a blood clot, one must wonder if Fleury will be burned out by season’s end.
Currently, Fleury is on pace to play 68 games in the regular season, which makes it painfully obvious that the Penguins have not taken the liberty of easing their 28-year-old goaltender into the 2013-14 season. While this may not seem like a big deal considering he is in his physical prime and has played 60 or more games in five out of the last seven seasons, it simply ignores past precedents and current conditions.
Since winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, it has seemingly been a yearly occurrence for Fleury to fall into a trap of poor play when the playoffs hit. Since this run to the top, he has played north of 60 games in every full season and made the playoffs each year regardless of length, picking up GAAs of 2.78, 2.52, 4.63 and 3.51. Each of these poor totals has been marked by an early exit from the postseason, and leaves one with no other option but to drawing a correlation between his extensive regular season playing time and playoff struggles.
With the Penguins currently sporting a backup that has no business being a backup at the NHL level in Jeff Zatkoff, it is clear that things will not be getting any easier for Fleury. If one thinks coach Dan Bylsma has been reluctant to take out his starter during the early stages of the 2013-14 season, there is no doubting he will never do so once the playoff race gets really heated.
So far, it appears that this race will be a dog fight to the end for the Metropolitan Division crown, as the Penguins sit at the top of the division with a 11-7-0 record, yet are only five points ahead of the sixth-placed New York Islanders.
Furthermore, when one looks at the fact that Fleury could be faced with adding his current workload to the 2014 Winter Olympics, one must wonder how heavy his workload could get before the playoffs even roll around. While it is a long shot that he earns the starting nod for Canada, this does not take away from the drag and added fatigue of traveling over to Russia when he could effectively be taking a two-week break.
When all of these elements are put together, it is clear that the Penguins are driving Fleury into the ground. It appears that there is really no good time to start sitting him before the season’s end as they are in the midst of a race for the playoffs.
With this in mind, it would appear that Penguins fans have no other option than to cover their eyes and pray that history doesn’t repeat itself and Fleury finds the fountain of youth down the stretch.