Penguins Notebook: Will Fleury Put Dagger in His Old Club?
Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the most popular figures in Pittsburgh Penguins history.
It is not a stretch to say that he was — and still is — beloved by a significant segment of the franchise’s fan base.
That’s understandable, considering that he has an infectious smile, exudes optimism and confidence and won three Stanley Cups while playing here.
Whether he still will be in a couple of days, well, that remains to be seen.
Fleury, you see, is the go-to goaltender for Minnesota, which will visit PPG Paints Arena Thursday at 7:08 p.m, and Wild coach Dean Evason has named him the starter against the Penguins.
Which means that Fleury could play a prominent role in keeping the Penguins out of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2006. That surely would qualify him as a villain, at least in the eye of some Penguins partisans.
The Penguins no longer control their fate; they forfeited that by losing, 5-1, in New Jersey Tuesday, while Florida was defeating Buffalo to move into a tie with the New York Islanders for the first wild card in the Eastern Conference playoff field.
What’s more, the Panthers and Islanders both have a 33-29 edge on the Penguins in regulation victories, the first tiebreaker, so the Penguins have to finish with at least one more point than one of those clubs to qualify for the playoffs for the 17th consecutive season.
That means it’s all but imperative that they defeat Minnesota, which is tied with Dallas and Colorado for first place in the Central Division. Cleanly, the Wild will not lack incentive to earn a couple of points against the Penguins.
Fleury, by the way, has faced the Pittsburgh Penguins seven times since going to Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, putting up a 4-3 record, 3.06 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
The Road Ahead
The Penguins have won four or more games in a row three times in 2022-23 — the first such streak began with a victory at Minnesota Nov. 17 — so it’s not inconceivable that they could run the table on the rest of their regular-season schedule.
Especially when, after taking on the Wild, they will close out the regular season against three non-qualifiers for the playoffs: Detroit, Chicago and Columbus. However, only the Blackhawks game will be contested at PPG Paints Arena.
Florida has what figures to be the toughest schedule of the three teams competing for the two wild-cards berth — the Panthers will play Ottawa, at Washington, Toronto and Carolina — while the Islanders will take on Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Washington and Montreal, with all but the Capitals game at UBS Arena.
Coming of Age
Although there haven’t been many real positives to come out of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season, the development of Drew O’Connor is one.
He’s established himself as an effective bottom-six winger, and has flashed some offensive potential that should only enhance his value in the future if he’s able to develop and refine it. And it certainly does need to be further developed; O’Connor hasn’t gotten a goal in his past 17 games, despite being willing to aggressively take pucks to the net.
O’Connor continues to get fourth-line minutes — his 10 minutes, 14 seconds of ice time in New Jersey was his most in seven games — but has worked his way into the penalty-killing mix, which could help to increase his workload.
In an organization with a paucity of promising young talent, having a guy like O’Connor come along the way he has is especially important. Especially when he checks in at 6 foot 3, 200 pounds.
At the very least, barring a horrific relapse, O’Connor should have signed his final apartment lease in Wilkes-Barre.