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PITTSBURGH -- His first set of pads were foam, and he and his sister and the neighborhood kids used them in the family basement taking shots against one another. He was 4, maybe even 3. His first set of real equipment came a couple of years later courtesy of Santa, and that meant no more renting goalie equipment from the local minor hockey association -- and wasn't that a big moment for young Marc-Andre Fleury.
At 28 now and the proud father of Estelle, born last Friday, Fleury has essentially been a goaltender his entire life.
He joked on Tuesday, a day before Game 1 of the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, that Estelle can't walk yet, but he's already working on her butterfly technique.
Still, it seems that being a goaltender is what Fleury does but not who he is. And maybe that's why, in the face of significant pressure after coming off an entirely forgettable playoff series a year ago against the Philadelphia Flyers, Fleury remains as unflappable and upbeat as he has ever been.
"I love what I do. I love the game. We have a good bunch of guys, so it's always nice to come to the rink and have some fun. Maybe if I get scored on, then I'm not happy and I don't smile," he said with a grin.
As for the Philadelphia series -- something that still casts a huge shadow over Fleury and the entire Pittsburgh Penguins team -- Fleury prefers not to dwell too much on those memories.
"It was just another obstacle," he said. "I wasn't happy. I wasn't feeling great about that. But took some time to think about it, take some time to forget about it and just start all over again."
The Penguins are a huge favorite to dismiss the New York Islanders in short order in the first round and march right to the Stanley Cup final. Yet there is a theory espoused by some that if there is a weakness in a Penguins lineup that seems built for glory, it is between the pipes -- specifically with Fleury.
"The question is going to be the goalie," one Eastern Conference scout told ESPN.com on the eve of the playoffs.
This theory presupposes, of course, that last season's playoff debacle -- which saw Fleury allow 26 goals in a six-game series loss in the opening round -- has anything to do with this season.
No doubt the Islanders hope you can draw a distinct line from then to now.
Former NHL player Keith Jones, now a national analyst, believes the Islanders' power play is potent enough that Fleury will have to be sharp. But he doesn't believe Fleury represents any kind of fatal flaw for the talent-laden Penguins.
Another national analyst, former NHL netminder Glenn Healy, agrees.
Healy thinks that the Penguins are a team on a mission and that Fleury does not represent any kind of deterrent to that mission being accomplished.
|Marc-Andre Fleury fell flat against Philadelphia last year. Will that affect him?|
"That was an implosion of the entire team," Healy said of last year's wacky, 4-2 first-round series loss. "Everyone had a part in it, and Fleury did, too."
Although Healy thinks that the tendency to resuscitate the past while debating what might happen in the future is something of a media trick, he did acknowledge that a series like last spring's is hard to forget.
It's one thing to be beaten by a better team, Healy said. "But it's another thing when you create your own wound because you're better than they are."
Fleury's former goaltending partner Brent Johnson thinks that last year won't get a nanosecond of consideration from Fleury.
"He's just not that type of guy," Johnson said. "He's got the best disposition."
While some goalies struggle to deal with poor outings, allowing them to seep into their subconscious to further erode their play, Johnson said Fleury has the uncanny ability to move on quickly.
"He can let it go better than any goaltender I've ever played with," said Johnson, who spent three seasons with the Penguins.
In some ways Fleury, the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, occupies an unenviable position in this hockey-mad city.
When the Penguins win -- and Fleury has been a large part of a lot of Pittsburgh victories, having collected 180 in the past four full seasons and 23 more in this lockout-shortened season -- more often than not the accolades go to guys such as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Chris Kunitz or James Neal.
When the Penguins lose, however, Fleury is often at the center of criticism.
Yet, unlike many goaltenders, he refuses to suggest the blame for losses lies anywhere but at his feet.
"He's just a fantastic guy. Just a really nice guy. And he's one heck of a goaltender," Johnson said.
Fleury says he learned early in his career not to dwell too much on the past. He points to the disaster in the gold-medal game of the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championships when his clearing pass bounced off teammate Braydon Coburn and into the Canadian net for what would turn out to be the winning goal as an example of having to move on from disappointment.
"I think with the experience I've had through my career, I had to learn young -- especially after that world juniors and all -- whatever happens, you can't let it take too much," he said. "You've got to come in the next day and look at what you did wrong and start from scratch and just try to do better the next game."
GM Ray Shero realizes that anything he says about his team in general, but specifically about his goaltender, when the puck hasn't dropped on the playoffs is in many ways meaningless. The facts are the facts. Fleury has won a lot of games for this team. He won a Stanley Cup in 2009 and the year before led the Pens to a Stanley Cup final.
But he will need to play well if the Penguins are to make good on their significant promise and win another championship this spring. The same can be said about every member of the Penguins, Shero said.
"It's no different for Marc-Andre Fleury than for 20 other players on our team," he said.
The bottom line is this: In the playoffs nothing matters, especially the past.
Starting Wednesday night we'll find out whether Marc-Andre Fleury, lifelong goaltender and new dad, has fully made his peace with his own past.