Is Dan Bylsma burning out Marc-Andre Fleury? The Flower doesn’t need to play in 85% of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hockey games this season. The Pens have a seven point lead in the Eastern Conference and a massive 15 point lead in the Metropolitan Division.
Fleury has participated in 37 games this season. That is second most among NHL goaltenders. He’s currently on pace to play 68 games. There is no need for Bylsma to wear Fleury out when the Pens aren’t in any danger of missing the playoffs. They aren’t even in a battle for first place in the East at this time.
Fleury has played over 60 games (not counting 2012-13 lockout season) in his last four full seasons. Since the 2008-09 season – the year the Pens won the Stanley Cup – there’s no secret that Fleury is notoriously known throughout the hockey world as being a playoff failure. While criticizing Fleury for his performance in last year’s playoffs is a valid argument, blaming him the 2011-2012 first round playoff debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers is misguided.
To refresh everyone’s memory, the Flower was in full bloom towards the end of 2011-12 regular season before the Pens were ousted by the Flyers in the playoffs. He was the sole reason why Pens fans were fooled into thinking the Pens were on the verge of a Stanley Cup that year. The team defense was brutal, but Fleury was playing out of his mind earning the team more victories than they actually deserved. He won nine games in a row and 11 out of 12 towards the end of the year. The Flower was playing some of the best hockey we’d ever seen from him. But Fleury was fatigued by regular season’s end. He lost three out of his last four games surrendering 14 goals with a save percentage of 0.787.
Bylsma had no choice but to play Fleury in many games that season. Brent Johnson was anything but solid between the pipes as the team’s backup. Not having a dependable backup cost the team in the long run. Fleury’s poor play carried over to the playoffs due to the fact that he was worn out from being overplayed in the regular season. He gave up 17 goals in his first three games of the Flyers’ series.
This season Bylsma has been given the option to play Jeff Zatkoff without resentment. Zatkoff has run off seven straight wins after beginning his season with a pair of losses. Even if Zatkoff would lose a handful of upcoming games, the Pens have a huge lead in their division. Bylsma can afford to take the chance and play Zatkoff more due to the separation the Pens have created within their division.
“He [Jeff Zatkoff] hasn’t seen the net as much as Tomas [Vokoun] probably would’ve, but Jeff’s gone in there and played games and won games for us,” said Bylsma. “[He’s] been the best player on the ice for us as well. He’s run with the ball. He’s certainly taken the net and done an unbelievable job for us.”
Despite stating that Zatkoff has played great, Bylsma obviously doesn’t trust him. If Bylsma had faith in Zatkoff, the Pens’ backup goalie would receive more starts in net. Winning seven starts in a row hasn’t influenced Bylsma to start Zatkoff more in order to rest Fleury.
Fleury could go the rest of the season without losing another contest and this wouldn’t matter if he doesn’t prevail in the playoffs. Bylsma should give Fleury every opportunity to be physically and mentally ready for the playoff run. As of right now, Bylsma seems more worried about collecting regular season accolades.
There are definitely certain playoff match-ups that would benefit the Pens more than others, but where the Pens ultimately finish in the regular season standings doesn’t matter. Having a focused Fleury will be the most important factor to the Pens’ playoff fate. Fleury needs every advantage possible heading into the post-season because the pressure is going to higher than ever.
This has been the best season of Fleury’s career, and his confidence is at an all-time high. But his play has started to slip a bit of late. He’s yielded nine goals in his last two games. Fortunately for the Pens, they’ve won both. Keeping Fleury confident will be a significant key to his playoff fortune. The last thing Fleury needs is to run off a string of lousy games. He obviously has lost his edge very quickly in the last two post-seasons. Treating his confidence will delicacy is something that Bylsma must keep in mind.
If the Pens get upset in the playoffs, no matter how they’re ousted, the blame will fall on Fleury’s shoulders one way or another. The Pens have the same defensive corps and defensive mentality as they’ve had in the past four years. If this year is any indication, their defensive zone coverage is still their biggest weakness. Having a confident Fleury to counteract this deficiency will be paramount.
The time has come for Bylsma to give Zatkoff more playing time. Even though Fleury will have a two week break during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, there’s no indication that Bylsma is going to ease up on Fleury’s workload once the regular season recess is over.
Hope that Ray Shero trades for a veteran backup to replace Zatkoff so Fleury can get more rest, or pray that Bylsma magically gains trust in Zatkoff. Fleury needs to see his playing time diminish if the Pens want to have a Stanley Cup run. Goaltending is always the determining factor in the playoffs.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.