Penguins Playoffs Ride on Fleury

Marc-André Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins are fighting to make the playoffs. The have bounced between being the third team in the Eastern Conference Metropolitan Division to a wild card team for several weeks. Fleury is having another good season for the Penguins, sporting a .921 save percentage and goals against average of 2.34. Not leading the league, but not too shabby either.

Fleury was drafted first overall in the 2003 NHL Entry draft by the Penguins, and has been with the team ever since. The high point of his career was helping the Pens win the Stanley Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven games, and some call this save by Fleury the “Stanley Cup winning save.”

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Let me be clear, Fleury has had a brilliant career. But, somehow in the years following the dramatic 2009 Stanley Cup win, Fleury has gotten a reputation of not being up to the task in the playoffs. Right or wrong, Fleury has been tagged “playoff unreliable.” In large part, the success of the Penguins in this season, as in many others, rides on Fleury being able to rise to the occasion as he did in 2009.

Loaded Penguins

Phil Kessel brings more firepower in front of Fleury for the Penguins (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Phil Kessel brings more firepower in front of Fleury for the Penguins
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Player for player it is difficult to find a lineup that is superior to that of the Penguins. Just the presence of Sidney Crosby alone is enough to elevate the team to a higher level than most others – much like Alex Ovechkin with the Washington Capitals or Patrick Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks. As if Crosby were not enough, Pittsburgh boasts the likes of Evgeni Malkin and most recently Phil Kessel, two legitimate goal-scorers that gives the team amazing firepower, at least potentially. Between Crosby, Malkin and Kessel the point total thus far this season is 165.

The talent that the Penguins possess goes even deeper than these three, with names like Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang bringing so much to the ice. The Pens are a team whose fans expect to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs every year, and rightfully so. And these expectations have been realized every year since the 2009 Cup win. At the same time, frustration is widespread among the Penguins faithful, and they realize that the team has failed to live up to its full potential over that same time.

The Fleury Blame Game

Who is to blame for the Penguins’ failure to win another Stanley Cup since 2009, with all of the talent on their roster? This post on Twitter from 2014 points to Fleury as the one to blame:

https://twitter.com/Irishenanigoats/status/466397995324669952

That sentiment may or may not be accurate, but it is out there. Some fans are quick to place the last six early playoff exits by Pittsburgh on Fleury’s shoulders. Since 2009, the Penguins have posted a first-place finish in the Atlantic Division along with three second-place finishes, along with a first-place and a fourth place finish in the Metropolitan Division.

Marc-André Fleury (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Marc-André Fleury
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Continuing this trend of having strong regular seasons, the Penguins are in the position of likely advancing to the playoffs yet again. They currently hold the last wild card position in the Eastern Conference. The playoffs are not guaranteed at this point however; with the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes doing all they can to catch the Penguins. A lot can happen in their remaining 16 games, but the team is playing well and getting strong play from Fleury.

Hunter Hodies of Today’s Slapshot wrote on Wednesday March 9 that Fleury’s “incredible goaltending at the start of the season” is what has the Pens where they are now. Hodies further wrote,

“The franchise goaltender saved the Penguins’ season under former head coach Mike Johnston, as he had some remarkable saves and put up some astounding numbers.”

The question remains, however, if the Penguins do make the playoffs, how will Fleury perform? On March 3, Ryan Womeldorf of Sports Glory summed up nicely the view that many Penguins fans have about Fleury and the playoffs:

“There was a time, not long ago in fact, that many thought Fleury was the reason the Penguins weren’t succeeding. And for a few years in the playoffs, Fleury wasn’t exactly as stellar as could be. Soft goals abound, early exits for the Penguins, and nothing but question marks surrounding both the team and the netminder.”

Womeldorf goes on to make the argument that Fleury has brought stability to the team for 13 years, and has had a career worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Point

The point is that Fleury has been a very good, consistent goalie for the Penguins since he donned their pads. A Stanley Cup Finals appearance followed by a Stanley Cup win carved out great expectations for him, some of which have been realized and some of which have not.

Fleury has been crucial to the Penguins’ success at getting into the playoffs year after year.

However there is a solidly embedded notion that Fleury has fallen short in the playoffs since 2009. In April of 2014 Ryan Lambert of Yahoo! Sports wrote that Fleury is a decidedly average regular-season goaltender who goes to absolute pieces in the playoffs. A month later Ryan Vyles at Liberty Voice wrote,

“Since hoisting Lord Stanley in 2009, Fleury has continued to flop in the playoffs so much so that the team had asked him to see a sports psychologist after last season’s disappointing display.”

So there is the point, deserved or not, Fleury has the reputation of not being able to get it done in the playoffs in spite of his early career playoff success. More astute Pens

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

fans might be able to break down even-strength puck possession or any number of other advanced stats to show that it really isn’t Fleury’s fault that the team has been dispatched early in the playoffs since 2009.

But, perception can feel like reality, especially among sports fans. If the Penguins do make the playoffs again this season, the spotlight will be very bright on Fleury, and Pittsburgh will need all they can get from their goalie to advance and maybe relive the 2009 experience. It’s unfortunate that early greatness can be tarnished over time, but that is what Fleury faces. Here’s hoping he can put some shine back onto his legacy.

Mark Shiver is a staff writer for The Hockey Writers credentialed with the Carolina Hurricanes. You can follow him on Twitter @markshiver 

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