When Marc-Andre Fleury allows a goal, he skates to the corner to blow off steam. He scrapes his stick blade across the crease to clear off snow. He watches the replay on the scoreboard screen to see what happened, to see if he could have done something differently, and then he moves on.
“I try,” he said.
He said he has always followed this routine. But there are a couple of key differences now: One, he’s 30. He’s older and wiser. He said he knows how to “relax at the right time.” Two, he’s in his second season working with Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales, who has taught him not only about stopping the puck, but about letting it in.
“Goals are going to go in,” Bales said. “It doesn’t matter how good you are. You’re going to let goals in in practice, you’re going to let goals go in in the game, and you need to have a plan how you deal with that. It doesn’t mean you have to be happy that they go in, but you have to have a way to reset. Marc’s worked on that, and he’s very good at that.”
Bales said Fleury was “becoming almost more Zen-like in his approach to how he deals with goals.” He wouldn’t give more detail. Fleury smiled. He wouldn’t give more detail, either.
“I don’t think I’ve broken any sticks lately,” Fleury said. “So I guess that’s good.”
Fleury has been better than good this season. His 2.16 goals-against average and .926 save percentage rank among the NHL leaders. Both are better than his career bests (2.32, .921) and much better than his career averages (2.59, .911). His six shutouts lead the league and already are a career-high.
Some would say this is just a hot streak and Fleury will regress. Maybe it is, and he will eventually, at least to some extent. No one sustains .926 goaltending over a long enough period.
But the Penguins, who signed him to a four-year contract extension in November, think he’s improving with age, experience and coaching, not to mention a new system in front of him. The word they keep using is “calm” – or “calmer.” He’s calmer in mind and body, and it has had a tangible effect on the ice.
“He’s more composed,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. “Maybe he doesn’t have all the spectacular saves he was doing, but he’s always in position.”
Fleury’s talent, work ethic, durability and attitude have never been in question. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft. He has kept himself in incredible shape. He has rarely been unavailable because of injury. He’s always smiling and remains one of the most popular guys in the dressing room.
The knock on Fleury has been that he has racked up regular-season wins because he has played for a good team – he’s already at 309 and counting – and he has been prone to playoff meltdowns. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, he had four straight playoffs with a save percentage under .900. He got pulled. He got benched. He got replaced.
Ray Shero, then the general manager, finally convinced Fleury to see a sports psychologist after the 2012-13 season. He also reassigned goaltending coach Gilles Meloche and promoted Bales before the 2013-14 season.
It wasn’t necessarily easy. Fleury was close to Meloche, and now here came Bales trying to change some things he had done for years. “It was a bit of a process where we had to get to know each other first, learn how to communicate and learn what one person sees and how the other person sees it,” Bales said. “We had to be able to come to common ground on how we’re going to talk about things.”
Fleury had another solid regular season in 2013-14, and he had his best playoff run since 2008, posting a 2.40 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He was not the reason the Penguins lost in the second round. He was not the reason Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were fired. He went into the off-season with a plan from Bales. “Bigger technical things are most often best worked on in the summer,” Bales said.
When he returned, Fleury had a new GM who supported him in Jim Rutherford. He had a new coach who preached puck possession in Mike Johnston. And he still had Bales.
The overall idea has been to add more technique to Fleury’s talent, work ethic, durability and attitude. Fleury used to drift physically and mentally. He would be aggressive and use his athleticism to make saves, but leave himself out of position on specific plays and end up unmoored in general. He would dwell on goals and lose confidence. Things would snowball.
Bales and Fleury have worked on Fleury’s depth – when to be aggressive, when not to be – and his post play. Fleury stays deeper in his net. He travels less distance. He squares to the puck more. He handles the same situations the same way repeatedly. “It’s not as flashy, but it can be more consistent,” Fleury said. “I think it’s been helping.”
“When there’s stressful situations or when maybe the pressure’s up a little bit, you have that structure to fall back on,” Bales said. “It helps you be more confident and more calm in net.”
Now combine that with the fact that Fleury is in his 11th season and has faced more than 15,700 shots – more than 18,400 if you include the playoffs. Some would say that amount of time and data reveal Fleury for what he is. Bales would say that goalies evolve over time and all that data should help Fleury read the play better.
“There’s certain patterns that happen in games,” Bales said. “As you get older, you’ve seen those patterns many times, and so it becomes automatic. … When you talk about goaltenders being in a zone or something like that, I mean, that’s sort of where they’re at. They’re seeing the patterns unfold before they actually happen, so they’re one step ahead of the play.”
Now consider the Penguins’ new system. Johnston has eliminated the stretch passes that Bylsma used, so another forward is helping in the defensive zone. He has his men play the body after rebounds, not the puck like Bylsma did. The Penguins don’t feel they have perfected their possession game yet, because so many guys have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, but Fleury said they allow fewer scoring chances. “It just seems if there’s a breakdown there’s always somebody around to get a guy and help out,” Fleury said.
And if the puck goes in, well, it goes in. Fleury skates to the corner. He scrapes the crease. He watches the replay. He resets for the next shot.
“Insofar as maturity, the emotional approach to the game, Marc’s much calmer now in the net,” Bales said. “He’s much calmer when things don’t go his way. It all helps keep him more even-keeled, which helps lead to more consistent play.”
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