Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, right, signs autographs as he leaves the ice following a NHL hockey practice at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009, in Pittsburgh. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH - Marc-Andre Fleury spent the summer of 2008 being constantly reminded about the save he didn't make.
With the Pittsburgh Penguins desperate to win Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final against Detroit and force a Game 7, Fleury deflected a Henrik Zetterberg shot 7 1/2 minutes into the third period. Fleury searched all around for the puck, only to slip backward and nudge it across the goal-line, putting Detroit ahead 3-1. Pittsburgh went on to lose 3-2.
Many goalies spend the rest of their careers never getting a chance to make up for such a disappointment. Fleury did, and in only a year's time. This time, he didn't fail.
Three months ago, with the Penguins leading 2-1 late in Game 7 in Detroit during their Stanley Cup final rematch, Brian Rafalski took a desperation shot from the right point. The puck didn't go in, but ricocheted to defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom in the lower left circle with two seconds remaining.
Lidstrom was open. The net was open, with Fleury still leaning to his left. Somehow, Fleury threw himself across the crease and knocked down Lidstrom's on-target shot with his stick and leg pad. A moment later, his Penguins teammates were throwing gloves and sticks in the air, the rematch won.
What's surprising is that Fleury allowed himself to watch replays of the save this summer no more than he revisited the failed save last year.
"I've watched it a couple of times, it was a pretty cool highlight for my career," Fleury said. "I don't know, it was just a save. I'm happy he didn't score on that one."
Maybe it was just a save, but sometimes one play, one moment, one opportunity that isn't lost can define a career. Fleury's save not only possibly saved the Penguins in Game 7, it answered the last remaining question about the netminder.
Certainly, Fleury was talented; he proved that by being drafted No. 1 overall at age 18 in 2003. Certainly, he could win games; he proved that by going 40-16-9 at age 22. He also proved he could take a team to the Cup final by doing so at age 23.
But could he win the big one? Could a player known for his athleticism and quickness but also for giving up the occasional soft goal and too many goals off rebounds be as good at stopping the puck when it counted as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are at scoring goals?
"I knew people doubted him, were questioning him," forward Ruslan Fedotenko said. "We never had a doubt in our hearts. He's the goalie for us."
"I think I've heard people say that I proved them wrong a little bit, so I'm proud of that," said Fleury, who is in training camp as the Penguins prepare for the long season that follows a short summer. "To me, I don't pay too much attention to what's said, as long as I play my best and get my teammates' respect, I'll be happy."
If Fleury changed any perceptions about him, he did it not only with one save, but two of the best games of his career.
The Penguins were in a big hole after Fleury played miserably and was pulled in Pittsburgh's 5-0 loss in Detroit in Game 5. The Red Wings were in position to win their fifth Stanley Cup in 12 years with one more victory, yet Fleury allowed only two goals over the next two games. No team had won a road Game 7 in the final since 1971 until the Penguins did it.
"It was just the experience from before," Fleury said. "I think that's something I've learned, there are so many games in a season that no matter what happened that night, you've got to put it behind you and forget about it."
Especially when Fleury is playing so many games. Of the Penguins' final 76 games last season, including the playoffs, Fleury played in 72. It was a pace resembling that of hockey's older days, when a goalie was supposed to play nearly all of his team's games.
The only problem for Fleury is that with Pittsburgh playing into June the last two seasons, he hasn't had time to work out as much during the short off-season.
"The longer summers I could work out a little longer and maybe get a little bigger," he said. "Mentally, I'm ready to go and play and I think that's what's important."
Especially now that, whenever he encounters a rut in his career, he has a video to watch that will remind him any shot can be stopped.