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Top Shelf: Fleury keeps moving forward

Alex Ovechkin of the  Capitals is stopped by Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins during first period action in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals is stopped by Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins during first period action in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

My favorite story about Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been told before, but bears repeating.

It occurred during his first year of major junior hockey, when he surprisingly made the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles a couple months before his 16th birthday.

During a rare rough outing, Fleury got the hook from former Eagles coach Pascal Vincent. Once on the bench, Fleury was handed a clipboard and asked to chart dangerous shots from both teams.

After the game, when Vincent collected Fleury’s handy work, he found the front of the page was blank. He then turned it over to discover a rather direct note from his young stopper on the back: ‘I’m a goalie, not a statistician.’

The coach wasn’t immediately pleased by the message, but quietly admired the kid’s confidence.

Almost 10 years later, Fleury still does a lot of things with flair – flashy glove saves come to mind. But while the underpinning confidence remains, it’s been interesting to note the layer of quietness that’s crept into and enhanced the 24-year-old’s game.

Fleury took some time to find his footing after being selected ahead of every other player in the dream draft of 2003. To be fair, he was hurried along and played on some very bad Pens teams early in his career. Consistency proved tough to find and, in many ways, Fleury’s biggest asset – immense athleticism – was also his undoing because he relied too heavily on natural ability instead of carving out a style that maximized positional play.

If making saves constantly requires quick reactions, something is wrong.

The change really began taking root with Fleury last spring. Things got calmer, saves started looking easier and all of a sudden he was an integral part of a team that advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

While his 2.67 goals-against average and .902 save percentage after 14 games this post-season aren’t exactly Sawchuk-esque figures, Fleury has shown some serious big save, right time abilities.

Who could forget him staring down all-world Washington sniper Alex Ovechkin when a Game 7 that ended up 6-2 for Pittsburgh was still 0-0? In Game 1 of the East final, it was Fleury – not the much-talked about Cam Ward of Carolina – who made all the key saves en route to a victory for his team.

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Bringing Ward into the discussion is pertinent because he’s played his way into chatter regarding which puckstopper Canada will lean on when it goes for Olympic gold next February on home soil. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur are already entrenched in that conversation, which also tends to include a token young goalie like Blue Jacket Steve Mason or, before things started to unravel a bit, Montreal’s Carey Price.

But when was the last time you heard Fleury’s name bandied about in that talk? If he continues to best Ward and, for the second straight year, plays a central role in his team playing for the Stanley Cup, he’s got to become part of the equation.

Maybe the hesitation to lump Fleury in with Canada’s elite stems from the fact he’s still got some letdown tendencies. There’s a wanderer in the affable Francophone that can’t always be tamed –and it has resulted in gimme goals for the opposition, including one in the aforementioned seventh game against Washington by the aforementioned guy you never want to give anything to.

Fleury is an easy guy to root for. His genuine happy-to-be-here grin is both refreshing and reassuring, because it lets you know there are guys out there who truly understand how special playing hockey for a living is.

Becoming a statistician is something Fleury will never have to worry about. He’s increasingly becoming established as one of the best in his current line of work and if he continues to embrace a less-is-more approach, there’s no limit to how much more lies ahead.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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