It was nearly unbearable watching Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury mentally unravel late last season. By the time the playoffs began, you could see his head wasn’t in the game; rather, the game was in his head. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma had no choice but to turn to veteran Tomas Vokoun in the post-season – and when Vokoun was lost long-term to a blood clot in the pre-season, Pens fans were openly looking for other solutions than the one Fleury still believes he has to offer.
But during the Pens’ first game of the season Thursday night, at least, Fleury demonstrated he shouldn’t be given up on just yet. The 28-year-old Fleury stopped all 27 shots he saw and was often spectacular in Pittsburgh’s 3-0 win over the visiting New Jersey Devils.
Fleury got some breathing room midway through the first period, when a pair of Penguins goals less than three minutes gave the home side a 2-0 lead. But the Pens went into a defensive shell, mustering just nine shots in the final two frames to the Devils’ 21 shots in the last 40 minutes.
But let’s be honest – even if Fleury stands on his head for multiple games in the early part of the season, he isn’t going to re-establish himself as an elite No. 1 goaltender. It would take the collapse of virtually every other Canadian Olympic team netminding candidate for Fleury to make it to Sochi, let alone start for Team Canada. He wasn’t invited to the Olympic summer orientation camp for a reason. He’s fallen and the only place he can get up that will re-earn him a star-like reputation will be coming through for the Penguins come playoff time.
Even then, many hockey observers expect Pens GM Ray Shero to make a move for another veteran goalie if Vokoun can’t return to full health (he’s currently scheduled to miss 3-6 months). Sabres goalie Ryan Miller makes sense in many ways: he fits the mold of the aging star in the final year of his contract that Shero acquired last year in Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, and he still has enough in the tank to stick around for a couple more years if things go well. Shero doesn’t have the cap room to acquire Miller right now, but the season is young.
But back to Fleury: the challenge for the 28-year-old isn’t only about regaining his confidence in the short-term; on Thursday night, he showed that was possible.
The tougher part comes in knowing he won’t be judged until mid-April.