|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
PITTSBURGH -- In the handy Carolina Hurricanes guidebook to victory for this Eastern Conference finals series, the hypothesis was simple: They had the best goaltender, and that was their best chance to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and move on to the Stanley Cup finals.
Cam Ward was red-hot, and his counterpart between the Pittsburgh pipes, Marc-Andre Fleury was, well, perhaps prone to a wobble or two.
There was just one problem. No one bothered to send Fleury a copy of the manifesto. He outshone Ward, turning aside 23 of 25 shots en route to a 3-2 victory in Monday's series opener.
"I'm not sure we would be smiling if it wasn't for Flower right now," Penguins defenseman Philippe Boucher said. "Even though it was 2-0 in the first, he kept us in there. It could easily have been tied. Then in the second period, they really took over, and he had to make some big saves there. Then he made a couple of huge ones again at the end."
|Evgeni Malkin and Philippe Boucher were two of the Penguins who were able to get past Carolina's Cam Ward in Monday's Game 1.|
It was Boucher who was the unlikely hero on this night -- well, apart from Fleury -- as the veteran defenseman scored the winning goal just past the midpoint of the third period on the power play.
In hindsight, Ward probably would like the Boucher goal back as the defenseman's wrist shot somehow squeezed through the Canes netminder and over the goal line. But it's hard to quibble with a guy who had to handle 31 shots on the night and made a handful of eye-popping saves, including one on an Evgeni Malkin breakaway attempt that kept the Hurricanes within a goal at 2-1 in the third period. Earlier, his glove save on Bill Guerin off a lovely Sidney Crosby feed elicited groans from the Penguins faithful at Mellon Arena.
On most nights, Ward's performance would have put the Hurricanes ahead in this series. But, although many would have predicted otherwise, Monday ultimately belonged to Fleury.
"[Fleury is] electric when he gets going," Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill said.
On nights like this, Fleury chatters nonstop to his defensemen.
"You can feel how good he's feeling," Gill said. "Ward played really well, but I think Flower played just as well. And he had to."
The Penguins were slow out of the blocks, and Fleury made quality stops on Chad LaRose, Joe Corvo and Eric Staal to keep the Hurricanes scoreless in the first period. Then, with 28.7 seconds left in regulation, after the Hurricanes had closed to within one on the power play and with Ward on the bench for an extra attacker, Fleury smothered a loose puck at the side of the net that Staal couldn't quite control.
"I was on my bum; that's good, eh? I can say that?" Fleury said, glancing over at Crosby to make sure he had used the proper term in English. "And [Staal] just missed a shot, and he didn't get good wood on it, so it just went back at me. A little bit lucky, but I'll take it."
Staal lamented how quickly the play came and went.
"It came real fast. I knew it was coming, but sometimes when you're back there, you can't see it," Staal said. "I wanted to stop it, but it came so quick that it was off my stick before I had a chance to corral it. Unfortunately, it didn't bounce into the net. It could have just gone off my stick and into the net. Instead, it went right into Fleury. Sometimes that's how it goes."
Had Staal managed to deposit that late puck, the storyline once again might be Ward's heroics. But he couldn't, and it won't be surprising if the margin between winning and losing is this close every night in this series.
That save provided a bit of poetic justice. On the Hurricanes' second goal, scored with 1:26 left in regulation, Staal first flicked the stick out of Fleury's hand (Fleury said he thought it was a shot), then swept it just out of the goalie's reach.
"I thought it might have been penalty, but they didn't call it," Fleury said.
Play went on, and Corvo's shot eluded Fleury, who was holding Rob Scuderi's stick by then, setting up Staal's last-second chance.
You won't find many goaltenders who will admit to wanting to outduel their competitor.
"I don't really play against him," Fleury said of Ward, using the standard goaltenders' redirect on beating the opposing goaltender.
Still, somewhere beneath Fleury's always-smiling visage, there must be more than a smidgen of satisfaction at having played a key role in his team's taking an early series lead.
He has joked in recent days about not reading what is written about him or watching what is said about him. And it's not that he's been terrible; just sometimes a little off, for a moment or two. In back-to-back home games against Washington, for instance, he allowed a goal on the first shot of the game.
And with Ward outdueling Martin Brodeur and Vezina Trophy candidate Tim Thomas in the first two rounds, you can understand why the Canes' goaltending edge storylines appeared in the days leading up to this series.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that there were questions about his team's goaltending, but made it clear those questions were being asked from outside the walls of the dressing room, not within.
"He's a confident kid. He often has a smile on his face, and he's been scrutinized a lot for a young goaltender," Bylsma said. "He has done enough inside our room to answer all those questions and more.
"There was certainly no lack of confidence from the coaching staff and from the players. We know who he is and what he can do. He played a good, solid game for us tonight and made huge saves."
Not that anyone expects the Hurricanes to fold their tents and go home. They have the Penguins right where they want them, given that they lost the opening games of their previous two series only to win both in seven. But neither the Bruins nor the Devils possess the arsenal the Penguins possess.
Malkin scored on a vicious backhander in the first period and added an assist on Boucher's power-play goal in the third. The Pens also got goals from players who have spent some time in hockey purgatory in Boucher and Miroslav Satan, who scored his first of the playoffs on a breakaway after coming out of the penalty box.
Want to know about that goal, though? Satan doesn't get a chance to score it if Fleury doesn't make a terrific glove save on Tuomo Ruutu during the Hurricanes' power play.
Although it might not have been part of the script many people envisioned for this series, it was the story of the night.Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.