Rabu, 27 April 2011

Fleury is Penguins' saving grace

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 25: Goaltender Mark-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins defends the net with the help of teammate Zbynek Michalek #4 against Steve Downie #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St. Pete Times Forum on April 25, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

The chants should start the second he takes the ice — if not before — and reverberate throughout Consol Energy Center for every shot, every save, even if the Tampa Bay Lightning score a goal.

Fleury! Fleury! Fleury!

Face it, Penguins fans: Marc-Andre Fleury is your best hope.

This Eastern Conference quarterfinal series has come down to Game 7, and the Penguins will rely on their best player this season to be the best player on the ice tonight. Fleury has to hold up his end, has to make sure he allows the Penguins to score more goals than the Lightning.

You should have every reason to believe that he is going to do it.

Fleury has not lost a game he had to win in a season where the Penguins have spent long stretches without either Jordan Staal or both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and even Matt Cooke. Fleury is the most valuable player for the Penguins, maybe the NHL.

Now, he has an opportunity to prove it.

"It's a game that you need your best players to play their best," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "Everybody needs to be at their best. I think he's been our best player all year, especially in the playoffs so far. He's been playing really well. We expect him to have his best game of the series."

Game 7s are often defined by a goalie making a spectacular save. Fleury shined in such situations in the 2009 playoffs, whether it was the glove grab of the rocket launched by Alex Ovechkin at Washington in an Eastern Conference semifinal or the Secret Service save of Nicklas Lidstrom's last-second shot at Detroit that clinched the Stanley Cup championship.

Fleury has a chance to erase the nightmarish ending to last postseason, when he was pulled against his hometown Montreal Canadiens amid a 4-0 deficit in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series in the final game at Civic Arena. That defeat haunted him into the early part of this season.

But Fleury bounced back, as he usually does.

He might not be a Vezina Trophy finalist, but Fleury kept the Penguins in games long enough to win in overtime or by shootout. He has shined at times this series, absolutely stealing Game 1 by making 32 saves in a 3-0 shutout and was almost as brilliant in stopping 29 of 31 shots in Game 4.

The series numbers might favor Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, who has a .941 save percentage to Fleury's .890 and a 2.05 goals-allowed average to Fleury's 2.79. But let's be honest here. Fleury is facing a firing squad in Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos. The Penguins are shooting mostly blanks, as evidenced by going 1 for 30 on the power play.

They have won the three games when he allowed two goals or less, lost the three games when he gave up four goals. That statistic alone is why Fleury must be at his best, why he needs the sellout, whiteout crowd to be boisterous in backing him whether the Penguins are leading or trailing.

As Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said after Game 6, "goalies have to be outstanding in the playoffs for your team to win, and in key moments, even more."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma sidestepped talking Tuesday about the importance of Fleury's play in Game 7, placing the emphasis on the entire team instead of one individual. Bylsma can tinker with the lineup all he wants, subbing Mike Comrie or Eric Tangradi or Deryk Engelland to provide a spark, but such moves would be more out of desperation than decisiveness. Unless Crosby or Malkin made a miraculous recovery overnight, this is the best the Penguins have to offer at the moment.

So it comes down to Fleury.

The Penguins believe he's ready.

"We know he's going to play great," center Mark Letestu said. "He's obviously a big leader on this team. He's going to be somebody we're going to lean on — hopefully not too heavily — but I'm sure there's going to be some big stops in there for us. His experience probably brings him a lot of confidence in this situation, and it breeds throughout the room. It gives us confidence to go out there and get him a few goals to work with."

If the Penguins don't, their fans better be behind Fleury.

He needs you, but not nearly as much as you need him.

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