Pittsburgh’s Fleury ready to blossom

PITTSBURGH – Nobody knows which Flower is going to show up. They want the orchid, the aesthetic gift that’s a spectacle of nature, too, with its long life. They worry about the lily, a beauty that with the slightest mistreatment fades. And they cringe at the thought of the oleander, which belies its splendor with a touch that is truly deadly.

All the Pittsburgh Penguins have a nickname, and the most simple and straightforward was bestowed upon Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), their goalkeeper: Flower. It’s not a literal translation; fleur is actually the French word for flower. It’s appropriate, though, the goalie and the plant sharing a similar delicacy and vulnerability that only enhances the fashion in which they enthrall.

When the puck drops Friday night for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, eyes at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit will train themselves not as much on the sweaters of the hometown Red Wings as toward the opponent’s crease, where the subject of their chants and the recipient of their ire resides. Under a hot, heavy face mask, with 50 pounds of gear tethered to his torso and limbs, Fleury will experience a pressure unlike any in American professional sports.

Neither football nor baseball nor basketball has an individual as important as a goalie is to a hockey team, someone who can so single-handedly win or lose a game. Fleury can be the brilliant orchid, as he was in Game 4, and he can be the murderous oleander, like in Game 5, and he can be somewhere in between, the lily, solid enough to give the Penguins a chance, flimsy enough to blow it.

Photo The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Red Wings during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
(Harry How/Getty Images)

And it is this scale of possibilities, the array of unknown, that gives such intrigue to this Game 7, more than any in the NHL this decade and perhaps the last 15 years. Were Fleury the sort of goalie who locks down with the consistency of a prison at 8 p.m., it would suck the drama from the festivities.

Instead, it’s Flower, the No. 1 overall choice in the 2003 draft who has always performed a tad short of top-pick expectations, the breathtaking athlete capable of saves few others could make, the skinny kid who scrambles out of position too much, the 24-year-old who sent this series back to Detroit by stopping a breakaway in the waning moments of Game 6.

Nothing but ice stood between Fleury and Dan Cleary. Fleury had seconds to strategize. He thought about poke checking. He thought better. He remembered Cleary’s tendency to deke to his backhand, denied the shot and preserved the 2-1 lead that held until the final horn.

“We expected Flower to stop it the way he was playing,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) said. “You know, he saved us many times. So not going to say I like seeing it. But I had all the confidence in the world that he was going to make that stop.”

That Crosby mustered any confidence in Fleury was either a fib or a masterful job of sublimation. Fleury couldn’t make it to the third period in Game 5, the Red Wings peppering him with shots that fluttered right by. Fleury left with a 5-0 deficit, and the chants of “Fleu-ry, Fleu-ry” that circulated all night seemed gratuitous, that easy of a mark was he.

“So I try to forget about it,” Fleury said. “Put it in the back, and next day come to the rink with a smile on, try to be positive and confident.”

Forget? Smile? Positivity? Confidence? What, did Fleury join the Girl Scouts?

Actually, it was a necessity. Finally Fleury understands that he means more to the Penguins than Crosby and Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Sergei Gonchar(notes). Each will win a few games a year each with a command performance. None does so as often – nor can exert the same control on a game – as Fleury.

For him to womp into Game 6 would have been a death sentence. He could have let his head turn into a DVR of his own horror flick, and he could have given up an early goal and reverted to the same dummy he played in the fifth game, and he could have remembered how he gave up the Cup-winning goal last season against Detroit by falling onto the puck and watching it squirt off his rear and into the net.

Game 7 road woes

There have been 14 Game 7s in the history of the Stanley Cup Finals. The road team has won only twice. Here’s a list of the championship finales:

Year Teams Game 7 outcome
2006 Carolina-Edmonton Carolina 3, Edmonton 1
2004 Tampa Bay-Calgary Tampa Bay 2, Calgary 1
2003 New Jersey-Anaheim New Jersey 3, Anaheim 0
2001 Colorado-New Jersey Colorado 3, New Jersey 1
1994 N.Y. Rangers-Vanc. NYR. 3, Vancouver 2
1987 Edmonton-Phila. Edmonton 3, Phila. 1
1971* Montreal-Chicago Montreal 3, Chicago 2
1965 Montreal-Chicago Montreal 4, Chicago 0
1964 Toronto-Detroit Toronto 4, Detroit 0
1955 Detroit-Montreal Detroit 3, Montreal 1
1954 Detroit-Montreal Detroit 2, Montreal 1
1950 Detroit-N.Y. Rangers Detroit 4, NYR 3
1945* Toronto-Detroit Toronto 2, Detroit 1
1942 Toronto-Detroit Toronto 3, Detroit 1
*Road teams to win the Cup in Game 7.

He didn’t. Every pratfall vanished, his mind’s chalkboard cloudy with eraser dust.

“Marc has a unique ability to refocus after pretty much any scenario that he’s been given,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “Whether he has a good morning skate or a bad morning skate, it’s not an indication of how he’s going to play the game, where some goalies may be that way. He’s been tested. He’s been talked about. He’s been scrutinized. And he’s answered a lot of questions.

“There were questions about him after Game 5, and we acted out of confidence, and said the things we said as a team because of the way he’s played, and played in the past, and the way he’s responded in the past. So I wasn’t surprised at all to see him play that way in Game 6.”

Bylsma is right, and regarding the scrutiny in particular. Crosby is the captain and the face of hockey, so writ large it’s heavier on him. On a bench and inside the dressing room, that isn’t the case. The defensemen can try to help Fleury as much as possible, and the centers and wingers can try to give him necessary cushion scoring, and still, the goalie’s glove, stick and pads are ultimately the only things between the puck and the net.

So of course the deepest analyses cascade on Fleury. He must stop Henrik Zetterberg(notes) and Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) and Johan Franzen(notes) and the rest of Detroit’s merciless attack.

“There is lots written about his position,” Bylsma said. “There’s lots of talk about his play throughout his career. He realizes that he gets to come to work every day to be the goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he gets to battle like a bugger when he does it.

“Every day in practice he relishes and enjoys stopping the guys when they come down the wing. Sometimes they go in, and sometimes Sidney Crosby does score on him, but he gets another chance right after and he’s ready for it. That’s his personality. He’s not bogged down by outside attention or media.”

Nor, it seems, is Fleury altogether flustered by what lies ahead. After wins and losses, his countenance changes not. Fleury is not a goaltending robot, per se – automatons wouldn’t let as many cheap goals in as he does – but he conducts himself in such a fashion, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Because while everyone else is living out the dream of playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and scoring the game-winning goal in overtime, Fleury can stand between his pipes, at the arena where he has allowed 17 goals in four games this season, and breathe with ease. He’s been to the brink of elimination, and he’d rather not return.

Forget, then, the oleander, for that’s what he’s doing. And disregard the lily. Flower wants, more than anything, to be an orchid, and the Penguins are hoping like mad that it’s his time to blossom.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jun 11, 2009