Enigmatic. It’s a word we often use when referring to streaky European wingers, but maybe it’s time we start using it to describe Canadian goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins. And it’s a word you should never, ever apply to your goaltender if you hope to win the Stanley Cup.
Yet the word seems apt, because on a night when he earned his 50th career playoff win – and a shutout to boot – we still don’t know what kind of goalie Fleury really is. Is he among the elite goalies in the NHL, as he appeared to be earlier in his career? Or is he a goalie who crumples under playoff pressure, as he’s done in recent years?
Or does he fall somewhere in between – an average goalie on an above-average team, elevated by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang?
Fleury looked like one of the best netminders in the league on Sunday when he shut the door against the New York Rangers and outdueled former Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist at the other end of the rink. Not only did the 3-0 win even the series between the Penguins and the Rangers, but it was Fleury’s seventh career playoff shutout, tying him with Tom Barrasso for most all-time among Penguins goaltenders. It was also his 50th career playoff win, as mentioned earlier.
Impressive numbers. Elite numbers. But is he elite?
You’d be hard-pressed to say he’s even in the same conversation as Lundqvist. ‘King Henrik’ had some incredible saves to keep his team in Sunday’s game, but in the end, the Rangers needed to get something – anything – past Fleury to give themselves a chance. And they couldn’t do it.
But Fleury remains a huge question mark. He can be very good, but when he needs to be great, he often delivers mediocre performances. Lest we forget, it’s become a rite of spring to watch ‘The Flower’ flame out in elimination games. He’s been better this year, but he nearly did it again in Game 6 of the first round against Columbus.
It’s truly shocking to think this is the same goalie who posted a .933 save percentage a 1.97 goals-against average through 20 games en route to a loss in the 2008 finals. Yes, this is the same goalie who, after losing to Detroit in that ’08 final, battled back the next year to a rematch with the Wings – a rematch he and the Pens won in Game 7 this time.
Fleury has been in high-stakes situations before and come out smelling like a rose. So why can’t he do it anymore?
Since the Pens’ 2009 Stanley Cup win, Fleury’s save percentage has been under .900 every year in the playoffs before this one.
The man is an absolute enigma, perhaps even to himself. And if the Penguins are to ever return to the Cup final, they’ll need Fleury to figure his game out – or they’d better start looking for a more consistent goalie in the off-season.