Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Flower Replanted

Through 30 games, the defending Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins stand at 16-10-4, just a few points behind the Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and in fairly solid playoff position with about two-thirds of the schedule remaining.

Yet the question on the minds of many who cover and follow the team persists: Why haven’t the Pens separated themselves from their East brethren?

The possible answers—or excuses, if you are head coach Michel “Iron Mike” Therrien—are readily available.

A) There hasn’t been enough offensive contribution from forwards not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
B) A plague of injuries has crippled their defensive corps, whether referring to the long-term absences of elite puck-moving D-men Sergei Gonchar (out for several more weeks) and Ryan Whitney (hoping for a pre-Christmas return), or the recent loss of the rangy, rugged Hal Gill.
C) The club remains one of the youngest in the National Hockey League, and as conventional wisdom suggests, youthful players tend to be inconsistent.

One potential tipping point left relatively unexplored is goaltending, and more specifically, the month-long convalescence of Marc-Andre Fleury from what the Penguins have deemed a “lower body injury.” Unconfirmed media reports have pinpointed the ailment as a groin strain, although it’s anyone’s guess which leg it affects (thank you, NHL general managers, for voting to institute the maddening new injury revelation policy that keeps us in the dark).

Lest we forget, Fleury’s performance in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was a key factor in the Penguins’ unforeseeable blitz through the Senators, Rangers and Flyers en route to a six-game defeat at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, the modern version of the Red Army.

Statistically, the man known to his teammates as “Flower” put together one of the better two months between the pipes in recent history. How does a 14-6 record, 1.97 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and three shutouts sound? With apologies to Crosby and Marian Hossa, it sounds a lot like a Conn Smythe winner if the Penguins had claimed the chalice.

Prior to the injury incurred near the end of a 5-2 home win against Buffalo Nov. 15, the numbers that were so kind to Fleury in the spring screamed autumnal mediocrity. Sure, his 8-3-2 record thus far this campaign looks solid, but a .907 SV% and a 2.86 GAA rank him 23rd and 26th in the NHL, respectively.

By comparison, Fleury’s backups match up favorably. Dany Sabourin, last year’s third-stringer behind current Red Wing Ty Conklin, has played 15 games, surrendering only 2.47 goals per 60 minutes (13th in the NHL) and stopping just over 91 percent of the shots fired his way, good for 21st among his peers. Rookie John Curry has also acquitted himself well, earning his first two NHL victories in three appearances.

However, despite seemingly better goaltending, the Penguins have fallen from a season-high five games over .500 at 11-4-2 (overtime losses counted) on the morning of Nov. 16 to their current position on the merits of a lackluster 5-6-2 run. In order to explain this lull, we must venture from concrete stats into the realm of the intangible.

First, let’s step back and explore the scope of Fleury’s NHL career. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft played 21 games as a 19- and 20-year-old for the Pens during the 2003-04 season, the squad that finished last in the league. He was hung out to dry nightly by one of the worst Pittsburgh teams in franchise history and sent back to his junior team to spare him further bombardment.

After benefiting from a year with Wilkes-Barre of the American Hockey League during the lockout, Fleury has shown consistent improvement that has eerily mirrored the evolution of the Penguins from league laughingstock to current holders of the Prince of Wales Trophy.

As one of the three longest-tenured members of the Black and Gold (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi also played in the pre-lockout days), Fleury has the respect of the locker room, and more importantly, he has earned the team’s confidence.

He was in net for the Penguins’ unquestioned biggest triumph of the young season, a 7-6 comeback victory over Detroit at Joe Louis Arena Nov. 11. Down 5-2 and 6-4 in the third period against the team that demoralized and frustrated them in the Cup final, the Pens played with a freedom that has been elusive ever since Fleury hit the trainer’s table.

With Sabourin or Curry in net, the Penguins have often had the look of a team consciously trying to protect its goalie, rather than a self-assured squad playing instinctively. The numbers bear out this difference: Pittsburgh has allowed about four fewer shots per game with the backups on the ice. While it’s great that the team has locked down defensively, offensive talent is more potent with an unfettered mentality.

In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, none other than the captain and face of the franchise gave Fleury an endorsement just as substantial as the one described above.

“It’s big,” Sidney Crosby said when asked about Fleury’s return to the lineup. “Obviously, it would be nice to get him back. He’s our starting goalie.”

Slated to get the start in Atlanta Thursday night, Marc-Andre Fleury can be expected to play a large role in pushing the Penguins back onto the perch they claimed last spring.

No comments: