The Pittsburgh Penguins were just about finished wrapping up a victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets last night, one which would’ve given them a 3-1 stranglehold on the opening round series between the two teams. The 3-0 lead they had established in the first period had been trimmed to 3-2, but with just over a minute left in regulation, it looked like the Penguins were going to survive.
Then came the one thing Pittsburgh had to be praying they wouldn’t have to deal with this postseason; awful play from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
It started in the waning seconds of the third period, when Columbus pulled off one last ditch, empty net effort to try and tie the series. The puck was sent behind the Penguins’ net, leading Fleury to go after it. However, he severely misplayed it, allowing Jackets forward Ryan Johansen to find an open Brandon Dubinsky, who proceeded to pot the game-tying goal into an undefended net. Many Pittsburgh fans had to wonder what exactly Fleury was doing, but hey, if he could just hold strong in overtime and help his team win, maybe everybody would just let it slide.
This, however, would not be the case.
Just a couple minutes into the extra frame, Columbus winger Nick Foligno sent a shot towards Fleury from just past the blue line, one that certainly didn’t look like it had a ton of mustard on it. Be that as it may, it went right past Fleury, and the series went from a runaway for Pittsburgh to 2-2 tie.
Sure, Fleury had 42 saves last night. And sure, the Blue Jackets goalie situation is hardly any better, as reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky has allowed just as many goals as Fleury this series. But Bobrovsky doesn’t have the playoff history Fleury does. He hasn’t imploded in the crease the past two postseasons. He hasn’t almost single-handedly let an opponent back into a series due to consistent mental gaffes. Fleury has, and it’s once again becoming a big concern for Pittsburgh.
You’d like to think he would be the first one to tell you he shouldn’t have chased the puck behind the net in the third. He surely should have saved Foligno’s shot that ended the game. And he can say he’ll learn from these mistakes and put on a better performance next time. But Penguins fans most certainly have heard this before. I’d be surprised if they believed it this time.
The problem is Pittsburgh doesn’t exactly have a solid backup option right now. Tomas Vokoun, the veteran netminder who was brought in after one too many Fleury hiccups last year, is available. However, he hasn’t taken the ice for Pittsburgh this season, having been sidelined since October due to issues with a blood clot. Smart money says Penguins coach Dan Bylsma would prefer not to have to put Vokoun out there, as he undoubtedly has a good chunk of rust to chip off and now is not the time to try and get him back into his game form.
Right now, it looks like Pittsburgh doesn’t have much of a choice beyond sticking with their embattled goalie. But make no mistake; last night’s come-from-behind win thanks to Fleury’s slip-ups has given Columbus a ton of momentum. They know the Penguins goaltender is second guessing Game 4’s blunders, and he’s struggled to recover from things like this in the past two postseasons. If he fails to bounce back again, you have to wonder if Pittsburgh will finally decide that enough is enough.