June 03, 2008
He's a former No. 1 overall pick; a Canadian kid with talent to spare who was thrust into the NHL as a fresh-faced rookie to learn on the job with a struggling Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. For the last several weeks, he's been on the playoff run of his career. If the run was going to continue, he'd have to be practically superhuman in Game 5 against the Detroit Red Wings.
That the description above could apply to anyone not named Sidney Crosby before last night's game was rather inconceivable: This was Crosby's Messianic moment, after all. And yet there was Marc-Andre Fleury, giving his teammates 55 reasons to keep fighting, 55 reasons to believe they could outlast the Wings, 55 reasons why that silver chalice was going to be tucked back into its trunk for a few more days.
There are more compelling stories from the Penguins' 4-3 triple-overtime win: Ryan Malone and Sergei Gonchar overcoming grizzly moments to return to the game; Coach Michel Therrien inserting Max Talbot into a 6-on-5 end-game scenario on a hunch, and then witnessing him put home the game-tying goal with 35 seconds left; and Petr Sykora's Ruthian "called shot" in overtime to win the game on the power play. But the only reason the Penguins and their fans will have a chance to experience a Game 6 in Pittsburgh can be found between the pipes.
Fleury was, simply put, the best player on the ice last night. His left pad stop in the second period and his glove save in the third should provide sufficient nightmare material for Mikael Samuelsson for the foreseeable future. His glove hand was quick, his lateral movement was fluid and his instincts were good -- even when shrewdly drawing a penalty for goaltender interference.
Was he perfect? Hell no. He was still an adventure every time he left the crease, and he had more rebounds in six periods in Detroit than John Salley had during his entire career with the Pistons. And yet he weathered every offensive attack, he made the saves he needed to make and the saves no one expected he could -- like the 24 he had in the overtimes. "That's going to be huge for him," said Coach Michel Therrien. "He was outstanding in overtime. ... No doubt Fleury, (this was) probably his most important win in his career."
If this was supposed to be a coronation, Fleury stole the crown.
Should we expect the same in Game 6? Maybe, maybe not. One could anticipate the Red Wings will attempt to crowd the crease a bit more with their wide loads at the forward spots, so perhaps Fleury doesn't see the puck as well as he did last night. But as I mentioned on the Puck Daddy live blog last night: The word "Giggy" was bouncing around in my head as I watched Fleury save everything in overtime. There are now two games left in this series. If Fleury's found his Giguere-like zone against Detroit, how do you like the Penguins' chances?
Both teams hit the posts, both sides blew chances, both sides had quirky goals and the officiating sucked for both of them. The Wings shot totals and relative poor luck still have them looking like the better team. But as of Game 5, they're not longer the team with the better goaltending. Unless he uncorks a classic in a clinching victory, Chris Osgood may have played himself out of Conn Smythe contention; Fleury, on the other hand, could be on top of the Penguins' list should this team complete what still is a rather unlikely rally.