Hobbled by injuries and stumbling towards the finish line, the Pittsburgh Penguins had nothing to offer the Ottawa Senators in Game 3. The Senators pounced from the puck drop and the Penguins didn’t have an answer. The Penguins couldn’t even stop Derrick Brassard, who scored a One-on-Three wrap-around goal in which three Penguins allowed Brassard the puck, position and finally time to skate around the Penguins net unchecked for the backbreaking third goal.
Matt Murray finished the game and the goalie controversy again percolated.
However, in practice Thursday, Fleury owned one net while Murray shared work with Tristan Jarry. That’s a sure sign Fleury is the likely Game 4 starter.
And so here it is. The Penguins down 2 games to 1 in the Eastern Conference Final. Their energy sapped from an exhausting and bruising Round 2 match with the Capitals. Their emotions empty. Yet still their heart beating.
That heart is Marc-Andre Fleury.
Where once Sidney Crosby was “Sid the Kid”, Evgeni Malkin was a young guy in Alexander Ovechkin’s shadow, Kris Letang was a dynamic skater who struggled with gaffes, and Marc-Andre Fleury was the giggly first overall pick on whom the franchise first rested. The kids came into the league close together, but the men they have become–with wives and children of their own–will likely not leave together.
Fleury was the first cornerstone drafted by then General Manager Craig Patrick, back in 2003. Fleury was the glue that kept a fractured team together in 2015 when an internal fight broke out over head coach Mike Johnston. Fleury’s goalie mask currently pays tribute to past and present teammates…who also pay tribute to him.
The crew grew together. As Mario Lemieux passed the torch to Sidney Crosby in 2005, as Malkin tried to escape Russia and Fleury learned to control his lightning quick reactions, something special was building. The team which went through marketing slogans like “Generation Next” as losses and top overall picks piled up, broke through with the 2009 Stanley Cup victory.
14 years after being drafted first overall, Fleury is 15th all-time in goalie wins (375) and second among active netminders behind only Henrik Lundqvist (405). Penguins fans and teammates will likely never forget his sprawling save on Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom in the closing seconds of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
Fleury, like Crosby, has also endured gargantuan struggles. In 2010 and 2011, Crosby missed nearly two full years with concussion symptoms and a neck issue. Fleury crumbled under the pressure of success and expectation in 2012 and 2013; a sin some fans will never forgive.
Crosby rebounded. And so did Fleury. Fleury was the Penguins best player in the 2014 First Round loss to the New York Rangers. And again in the 2015 Second Round loss to the Rangers.
In 2016, Matt Murray became the first of the Penguins next generation to challenge the pillars of the Penguins. While Fleury carried the team through the first half of the season with a Vezina quality performance, a late season injury robbed Fleury of the chance to backstop another Stanley Cup winner. Murray did, instead.
Since last summer, trade rumors and the expansion draft scenarios have surrounded Fleury. After the season, Fleury will likely be dealt. This season, the future uncertainty became so intense, it affected his play…until March 1, when the trade deadline passed.
With the weight of the world removed, Fleury has been a new man. Fleury posted .923 save percentage from March 1 through the end of regular season and, after the Game 3 debacle, Fleury still has a .924 save percentage in the playoffs.
He’s the reason the Penguins have come this far.
Yet, the Penguins have life.
Like they have been so many times before in this era, the Penguins are battered and decimated with injuries. Man Games Lost is not a stat historically counted in the dozens for this team, but counted in the hundreds.
The Penguins are missing two of their top four wingers, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist. The Penguins top right side defensemen, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz are out. The third right side defenseman, Trevor Daley appears to be a country mile away from healthy.
With Fleury, the Penguins survived the pounding by Columbus in Round 1, and stole a Round 2 series against the superior Washington Capitals.
The odds are stacked against the Penguins. They’re not only down two games to one, two years of pounding has taken its toll. The Penguins are seven wins away from the Stanley Cup, but the closer they get, the fewer players they have left.
Credit Mike Sullivan for sticking with a player he deemed his back-up goalie. Sullivan appears ready to reward Fleury for extraordinary play and grant his players a last chance to write the storybook ending.
Unfortunately, life rarely works like a storybook. The situation looks more like the end of Thelma and Louise or when Butch and Sundance realized they were surrounded. Like Butch and Sundance, the Penguins will hopefully go down, guns blazing.
Game 4 could be the end. If the Penguins stumble badly again, Murray could start Game 5 and the sun sets on the winningest Penguins core in team history.
Or, the Penguins again defy the odds and logic. And that last ride into the sunset remains possible. The Penguins have ridden Fleury and he’ll need to carry them a little farther.