DETROIT – He'd given up five Game 5 goals on this same sheet of ice. He was yanked in the second period as catcalls and confidence dropped around him, the Detroit crowd going wild over his failures.
The old questions were returning to his young shoulders – you can't win a Stanley Cup with Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), the fans kept laughing. Pittsburgh can't win with all these kids, not yet at least.
Now it was six days later, now everything was on the line, the Stanley Cup shined up and waiting. It was the final, furious seconds of Game 7 and Fleury was back in this red-clad house of horrors, these relentless Red Wings swarming him one last time.
He had held them all night. Twenty-two saves to this point, just one goal. Pittsburgh was clinging to a 2-1 advantage. In the final minutes he'd deflected one shot off his shoulder and then the cross bar. In the final seconds he'd knocked a shot off to the side.
Now Niklas Lidstrom had the puck on his tape though, room to shoot, the clock in its absolute final tick of life. This was a Hall of Famer with one shot for the Stanley Cup.
Fleury had little choice and perhaps less chance. All the goalie could do was heave his body toward the open side net.
The puck slammed into his chest.
One second later his teammates mobbed him. Ten minutes later he had Lord Stanley in his hands.
He circled around and lifted it in the air, right back in the face of all those Detroit fans that had abused him the week before, right back at those that thought that these Penguins weren't ready for the big step, right back at everyone who believed a guy nicknamed "Flower" would wilt under the pressure.
"What is Game 5?" Marc-Andre Fleury smiled after. "I lift the Cup tonight."
Here were all these Penguins, too young, too green and too inconsistent going out and not just lifting it but seizing it. Here were all these 20-somethings, the team of the future skating into Joe Louis Arena on Friday and deciding the future was starting right now.
They were in 11th place in the middle of the season. They were the fourth seed entering the playoffs. They needed to win all four playoff series on the road. They were forced to take four of five from the mighty Wings, even rebounding from that horrific 5-0 humiliation a week ago.
Talent they had. Everything else they occasionally lacked.
Their coach, Dan Bylsma, said he always thought this team "could win a Stanley Cup" just "maybe not this year" he admitted.
Then came Game 7 and it didn't matter who did or didn't think anything. The players believed. This wasn't so much Pittsburgh winning as Pittsburgh dominating.
They were quicker to the puck than Detroit. They showed more life, better execution and deeper hunger. They sucked the life out of Joe Louis long before they pumped in two second-period goals; the educated hockey fans of Hockeytown well aware that their team was being outplayed.
In the end they watched a goaltender that'd been run out of the building in less than two periods, deliver 53 minutes of shut-out, Game 7 hockey. Then, after his one slip up, he rebounded to provide a few final minutes of Cup-winning brilliance.
"Just stop the puck," Fleury kept repeating. "Just stop the puck."
"Everybody's always saying, 'Oh, we're not sure [about Fleury], he never won anything,' " Maxime Talbot said. "But you know what? He proved [to] everybody that he's a winning goaltender."
Winning was the only question left for the Penguins. The star power was there, but the Stanley Cup isn't impressed with beauty. It is swayed by grit and determination and heart.
So here was this team of forever youth and scraggly beards, going against the winning machine out of Detroit. Here was Jordan Staal(notes), 20. Sidney Crosby(notes), 21. Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Tyler Kennedy(notes), 22. Fleury, 24. Talbot, who had both goals Friday, was an old man at age 25.
They'd seemingly grown up together. All of these kids arriving in Western Pennsylvania at nearly the same time; just after Mario Lemieux helped save the proud franchise from relocation.
It was a perfect storm.
"I met Sid when he was 13, I was 16," Talbot said of the hockey prodigy. "When he was 12 he had an agent. And I was in front of my TV when we won the lottery, Pittsburgh got the first pick overall and it was Sidney Crosby. I was kind of scared."
It was a reasonable emotion and not just because they played the same position. Crosby would bring skill to the team. He'd also bring immediate demands and grand expectations. This was a team of destiny, everyone thought. Not everyone was willing to wait for destiny though.
Every misstep was blown up; every loss seen as a sign of greater failure; every bad individual performance a question on long-term potential.
"There's a lot of scrutiny about these guys," Bylsma said.
Until this perfect spring day in Michigan, in the toughest building in hockey, they provided all the answers by taking down the sports' modern dynasty.
Here was Pittsburgh, their time now, their Cup here.
Here was Marc-Andre Fleury, a last-second save for the ages. Here was the goalie holding the Stanley Cup above his head and with a look of redemption into those fast-emptying stands that had once tauntingly sung his name.
No one was mocking him now.
No one was questioning these Penguins either. Not now, not ever again.