For the last two seasons, one name was blamed for the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ early playoff exits. It wasn’t Sidney Crosby, the Penguins’ captain, Evgeni Malkin, a former NHL MVP or the Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma. The one man who was blamed for the Penguins’ failure to win the Stanley Cup was Marc-Andre Fleury.
But this year, things have changed.
Fleury is a proven goaltender who has won the Stanley Cup before, and although he had two crucial slip-ups in Game 4 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he has been one of the main reasons the Penguins are not only still alive in the 2014 NHL Playoffs, but also up 2-1 in their second round series against the New York Rangers.
After losing Game 1 in overtime, Fleury has gone 120 straight minutes without allowing a goal. His playoff statistics are still far from stellar, but the goals that the Penguins have been allowing can be attributed more to poor defensive zone coverage and atrocious turnovers than Fleury’s play.
In light of all the naysayers, which include Andrew Ference of the Edmonton Oilers, who said on NBC Sports that Bylsma should start Jeff Zatkoff in Game 5 of their opening round series, Fleury has been dominant the last two games.
So what’s been different? Fleury’s 120-minute perfect streak is a mixture of a tighter defensive system and a more conservative approach in the neutral zone, but he has also looked far more confident in the net than in past games. He hasn’t been fighting the puck and his rebound control has been better. The Penguins have done a better job clearing out the front of the net, which in turn has led to Fleury seeing more pucks coming from the point.
When Fleury sees the puck, he’ll most likely smother it, but when defensive zone positioning breaks down, he is left fighting an uphill battle. In order for the Penguins to be successful, Fleury doesn’t have to steal the spotlight like Jonathan Quick did two years ago for the Los Angeles Kings. He just has to be solid and not make crucial mistakes.
Of course, going two full games without being scored on doesn’t hurt.