DETROIT – Marc-Andre Fleury's(notes) inelegance as a goalkeeper is part of what makes him successful. He is a tangle of lithe limbs that fidget and he has the neck of a bobblehead doll, always moving as though it's spring-activated, and the two often work in wonderful unison.
They can, too, lead to abject misery. The enduring image of last season's Stanley Cup Finals was Fleury allowing a puck to trickle between his legs, then falling onto it with such force that it squirted across the goal line. The game- – and, ultimately, Cup- – winning goal for the Detroit Red Wings was credited to Henrik Zetterberg(notes), though Fleury's posterior deserved an assist and perhaps even a star.
It was with that memory that Fleury stepped into Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night charged with the same task as last year: not only lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a championship but do so by vanquishing the mighty Red Wings. In Game 1, as much as Fleury tried to mask his propensity to let cheap goals squeeze by, the Joe's nooks and crannies wouldn't let him.
The Red Wings' familiarity with the springy end boards helped net two goals that bounced off Fleury's leg, and they got a third from a rookie who forgot the path of least resistance is a Fleury body part. And following the Red Wings' 3-1 victory, all the befuddled goalie could do was lament the misfortune of starting these Finals exactly where he finished the last – times two.
"Especially two," Fleury said. "It's unfortunate. It's frustrating. It wasn't a clean shot that beat me. It's so frustrating."
The frustration only compounded when a third-period shot from Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby(notes) kicked off the post, caromed into the air and landed directly on the back of Detroit goalie Chris Osgood(notes), who was splayed on the ice. The puck sat on Osgood's sweater for a second, like a live grenade, which Zetterberg jumped on without incurring a penalty.
The rebounds, and which way they went, defined a Game 1 that was otherwise even, a departure from last year's 4-0 shellacking the Red Wings laid on the Penguins. Though Crosby was held scoreless for only the third time this postseason, Pittsburgh outshot Detroit 32-30 and pressured Osgood all night.
Problem is, Osgood has spent 12 of his 16 seasons with the Red Wings, and he knows the boards well enough that he has no trouble screaming at them when they deal him a wicked kick. Rarely does the verbal lashing work. Familiarity does.
"Sometimes it really does just have to do with getting a good bounce, and it doesn't come back out front on somebody's stick," Osgood said. "They definitely are dangerous, and tonight they bounced our way."
Enough that the Penguins couldn't blame Fleury afterward. The goals went in on his watch, sure, though they were more the head-shaking, stomach-turning, groan-worthy variety that come only in Detroit, where the boards have enough of a reputation that players start assigning them anthropomorphic qualities.
Not live, like pucks ricochet off them with all sorts of vigor. Alive, like infiltrated by apparitions that giggle at bounces that defy physics.
"They're crazy," Crosby said. "They're ridiculous."
The issue is multifold. Pucks take unwieldy jumps. They're moving so quickly, defensemen generally can't alert the goalie. The Red Wings don't know the exact nature of the boards, per se, but they're familiar enough that they're told to shoot at them if there isn't a clear lane toward the goal.
And no matter how much the Penguins practice playing pucks off the boards, they'll never learn every idiosyncrasy, not when the preparing for the Red Wings' relentless attack takes precedence.
"It's always been that way here," said legend Gordie Howe, who played in his final All-Star game at the Joe in its inaugural year, 1979. "It's part of the place's charm. Not very easy to play, though."
Fleury can attest. In the first period, Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart(notes) intercepted a poor Hal Gill(notes) clear and fired a soft shot toward the boards. It glanced off them, angled straight toward Fleury's leg and seeped in. He had no idea the Red Wings had taken a 1-0 lead until the crowd erupted.
With less than a minute left in the second period, Zetterberg's shot took an odd hop toward Johan Franzen(notes), who poked the puck off Fleury's calf to put Detroit ahead 2-1. Again, Fleury was flustered. While he doesn't like giving up strong goals – and even the Red Wings' final one, the first of fourth-line winger Justin Abdelkader's(notes) career, wasn't exactly that, as he caught a high deflection off a Fleury save, placed it on the ground and wristed one stick-side and high – Fleury can at least understand those.
The easy ones sting.
"It's a little bit of dumb luck," Fleury said, and it was. There is only so much Fleury can do about the boards. He's got to weather them at least once more, on Sunday night for Game 2, and then, he hopes, for Game 5. To allow anything about the Joe, whether on the ice or in the stands, to occupy his mind would be sabotage. No one can afford that.
Fleury is now 24. He is in his fifth season. He hasn't been a breakout star like his teammates Crosby and Evgeni Malkin(notes). He's just been solid Marc-Andre, capable of wonder and misery. The chasm between the two is great, and the Penguins need him to be much more the former than the latter.
It may be the difference between a championship and another offseason spent lamenting the softest of goals.