Friday, April 20, 2012
Fleury saves the Pens' season
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
PITTSBURGH -- It was about halfway through the third period when Marc-Andre Fleury made a dramatic save on Jaromir Jagr and then Scott Hartnell, and the already boisterous Consol Energy Center crowd took up the chant once again: "Fleury! Fleury! Fleury!"
Later, after Fleury had saved the Pittsburgh Penguins' season with a dominating performance in a 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, he allowed himself a small grin.
Yes, he'd heard the chanting.
"The crowd was awesome being loud and giving us the energy," Fleury said after he turned aside 24 of 26 shots, including all 14 in an often frenetic third period.
"I think sometimes it was easy saves and they still cheer. That was awesome."
It's true. The crowd went wild for Fleury after an early Flyer shot clanged off the post. Fleury, for all his aw-shucks boyishness, is self-aware. He knows that a few days ago his name was being taken in vain by frustrated Penguins fans.
In the Game 3 debacle -- an 8-4 loss that gave the Flyers a 3-0 series lead -- Fleury was lifted after allowing six goals on 28 shots. Through the first three games, he allowed 17 goals.
He looked tentative and there was the distinct possibility that any and every Flyer shot was going to elude him.
Asked about the last three-game stretch that he had endured like the opening three games of this series, Fleury couldn't remember.
"I don't know when was the last time. It's not easy. It's playoff time; you want to do well, you want to win and it seemed like nothing was going right for us, but nothing was over. It was three games," he said.
Over the last five periods of hockey, Fleury has rediscovered the kind of mojo that is familiar to hockey fans from the Pens' run to the Stanley Cup in 2009. He shut the Flyers out in the final 40 minutes of Sunday's 10-3 win in Philadelphia and then was even better Friday night in Game 5.
Fleury was especially strong during a third-period Flyer power play, stopping seven shots. He denied Jakub Voracek, Jagr and Daniel Briere, who had several glorious whacks at the puck at the side of the net.
"That's the best he's been this year for sure," said Matt Cooke, one of the Penguins' key penalty killers. "He's played great for us all year and he's our guy. Through some of the quirky and weird things that have happened up to this point in the playoffs, we've never lost faith or lost doubt. He proved why tonight."
Cooke's linemate and the scoring star on the night, Jordan Staal, echoed those sentiments.
"He's always trying to be the difference-maker. He works so hard and tries on every puck. It's awesome to see him play really well tonight, and hopefully we can play really well in front of him and he can keep doing that," Staal said.
After the carnival that had been the first four games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the playoffs finally showed up in Game 5.
Tight-checking, hard-hitting, this was the kind of game most had anticipated would mark this series throughout.
How dramatic was Fleury's turnaround from the first three games?
Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette figured his team generated as many chances as they did in Game 5 as they did earlier in the series.
He numbered a dozen quality chances.
"We couldn't get them past their goaltender tonight," Laviolette said.
This series has been so bizarre, at least until Friday night, with goals being scored at a furious rate, that it's been difficult to get a sense of which team has or might rightfully expect to have an edge in goal.
Friday night established that for the time being, that edge lies distinctly with the Penguins.
It's not that Ilya Bryzgalov, yanked in Game 4 after giving up five goals on 18 shots, wasn't bad in Game 5.
But he simply wasn't good enough. Or more to the point, he wasn't as good as Fleury.
After giving up a first-period power-play goal to Steve Sullivan, Bryzgalov could not track down a hard, high Staal shot that tied the game at 2-2 early in the second. And then, less than four minutes later, he did not see a hard Tyler Kennedy slap shot that caught the far corner of the net.
With Game 6 set for Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, the Flyers were pleased with their play Friday, especially vis-à-vis their play in Game 4.
"There's a lot of confidence in our group to win games," Laviolette said.
Certainly no one in the Flyer room is expressing doubt about their ability to hold serve while the Penguins have been careful not to suggest the series has shifted on its axis.
Rest assured, those storylines will be written if Fleury plays like he did Friday on Sunday afternoon.
"He was on, you knew that. You never know sometimes, but when he is playing like that I think everyone is confident he's going to shut the door. We don't like to have him tested that often with those big chances, but he was there. He was huge for us tonight," captain Sidney Crosby noted.
After the game, Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux, often visible but hardly an everyday presence in the locker room, walked through a nearly empty locker room and bent down to chat briefly with his netminder, who was still sitting at his stall in his pads. Lemieux shook Fleury's hand in what might have been a gesture of thanks, which, on this night, was the overriding sentiment of Penguins fans everywhere.