"Marc-Andre Fleury never has played particularly well in Joe Louis Arena, and with the waves of talent the Wings can send down the ice -- especially with Pavel Datsyuk(notes) back in gear -- they are not likely to be blanked." - Mitch Albom, Freep, June 12
"Doubts linger about Fleury's ability to win the big game. He is out to prove he belongs in the same breath as Cam Ward(notes), Marty Turco(notes), Eddie Belfour and Mike Vernon -- goalies who also didn't get their due until they hoisted the Cup." - Ottawa Sun, June 9
OK, so the Detroit Red Wings weren't blanked. But Fleury played particularly well in Joe Louis Arena; and by backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup with a 23-save effort in their 2-1 Game 7 victory, it's about time he starts getting his due.
Sure, there are other bigger, sexier and more significant stories than Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) skating into an arena where the boards baffled him and the fans rattled him -- and skating out as a Stanley Cup champion.
It's all the stuff of legend now that the Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup champions; a title captured thanks in no small part to a goalie who justified his legacy as a No. 1 overall pick, the confidence of this teammates and his status as one of the NHL's top netminders.
Coming up, in praise of Fleury, reviewing the triumphs and tragedies of Game 7 and some candid shots from after the game.
We've been guilty of being Fleury apologists here -- his Game 5 performance was not nearly as bad as his pulling would indicate -- but we've also been Fleury realists. His puck-handling is the root of all sphincter-clenching for Penguins fans. He usually has more rebounds than Dwight Howard playing against an Amish youth league team.
That said, he didn't need to prove anything to us about being a big-game goalie; not with two Stanley Cup Final trips in two years. But we were in the minority: The amount of pundits and fans who expected Fleury to fold like a deck chair in Game 7 at the Joe far outnumbered those who thought he could win the game.
But win he did. As Pierre McGuire said in one of his more cogent moments, Fleury's rebound control was like "Velcro." His positioning was strong. The quality of his previous performances at the Joe is debatable; his rotten luck there isn't, and even that changed tonight on Niklas Kronwall's(notes) shot off the iron (aka The Crossbar That Saved Pittsburgh).
If you could have conceived every possible lasting image of the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 against the Wings, would Fleury's falling save on Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) in the final clicks have been one of them?
This passage from Wes Goldstein of CBS Sports reads prophetic now:
Less than two minutes remained in a Game 6 the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to win to save their season ... and one of the Detroit Red Wings' most prolific scorers was breaking in alone on Marc-Andre Fleury.
It wasn't the most pleasant sight for the young goaltender whose confidence could have been reasonably undermined from being pulled in the previous game.
Fleury had only an instant to decide whether his best chance at preserving a 2-1 lead would be to attempt a poke check or to wait out Dan Cleary's move. He opted for the latter, deflecting away the backhand shot and prompting Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr to text message a friend in Penguins owner Mario Lemieux's box, saying, "That might be your Cup."
As some have pointed out to us tonight, Fleury could still be treated as Chris Osgood(notes) is treated: an undeniably clutch playoff performer who is annually dogged for his regular-season deficiencies and occasional lapses. Like Osgood, Fleury's status as an elite goaltender is not guaranteed by virtue of a Stanley Cup ring.
But as of now, Fleury's winning the argument about this status and stature; with two trips to the Finals, and in that second trip two outstanding games facing elimination and a victory inside Joe Louis Arena in a Game 7.
No, he's not perfect. But yes, he is a champion.
Random Thoughts on Game 7 ...
• Knock off the chatter that Sidney Crosby wasn't in the handshake line. The NHL has video of the line after Game 7, and although Crosby isn't leading it for some reason, he does appear at the end to greet both Henrik Zetterberg(notes) and Nicklas Lidstrom.
• I felt Game 7 was very much like Game 6 in its flow. The Penguins really controlled play and frustrated the Red Wings for about 35 minutes; Detroit came on very strong at the end of the second and during most of the third, especially after the Jonathan Ericsson(notes) goal delayed the inevitable. The bottom line is that a defending champion with a roster stocked with veterans couldn't answer the bell in consecutive elimination games, and that's stunning.
• Chris Osgood didn't look strong on Talbot's goals, but once again kept his team in the game when they needed him. Had Detroit won the Cup, he probably would own the Conn Smythe right now. Outstanding postseason for a player who was much-maligned in the regular season.
• Oh look, a reason to celebrate. (Thanks, Geno.)
• Truly one of the most underrated aspects of the Penguins' rally in the series: Their penalty kill goes 4-for-4 in Games 6 and 7, and at critical junctures: Two kills in the third period of Game 6, and kills with a 1-0 lead and at the start of the third period in Game 7. Kudos to Craig Adams(notes) (2:14) and Rob "The Piece" Scuderi (2:07), who led the Pens in shorthanded ice time in Game 7.
• Blocked shots were 20-3 (!) in favor of the Penguins in Game 7.
• Finally, which one of these becomes the most popular voodoo explanation for the Penguins winning the Cup: Sidney Crosby touching the Prince of Wales Trophy or a lucky burrito that's now 23-1 and even travels to Detroit?