PITTSBURGH, Pa. - During the Pittsburgh Penguins' final season at Mellon Arena, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury took part in a familiar ritual with fans outside the player parking lot each evening.
As he left in his Lambourghini—one that requires well into six figures to purchase, in either Canadian or U.S. dollars—he routinely signed autographs and answered a few questions before racing off into the night.
Oh, the comfortable life of a talented and well-paid professional athlete, one who was at the top of his game and was well compensated for it with a US$35-million, seven-year contract that he signed while leading the Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cup finals.
When the Penguins moved across the street into the spiffy new Consol Energy Center this season, that comfort zone and I'm-on-top-of-the-world confidence vanished briefly for one of only two goaltenders—Rick DiPietro is the other—drafted No. 1 overall in the last 43 years.
Thankfully for the contending Penguins, it's back now. Fleury's 33 wins since his slump ended with a 5-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Nov. 12 are the most by any NHL goalie during that span. And with Evgeni Malkin done for the season and Sidney Crosby's playoff status uncertain, Fleury gives the Penguins their best hope for a lengthy playoff run.
Given how infrequently they score goals—they've averaged 2.16 per game since Crosby sustained a concussion in early January, the fourth-lowest average in the league—he may be their only hope.
"Two superstars go down, he takes over and carries us," defenceman Ben Lovejoy said after Fleury recently set a franchise record with a scoreless streak lasting 150 minutes 14 seconds. "He's been unbelievable."
One wouldn’t know it from Fleury's awful statistics to start the season: a 1-6 record, 3.54 goals-against average and an .853 save percentage that were so bad, 39 other NHL goalies had superior numbers.
An exasperated Dan Bylsma, the Penguins coach, finally began using Brent Johnson as the starter for a short stretch as he waited and waited for Fleury to find his game.
"Everybody was trying to run him out of town," said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, a teammate since Fleury's rookie season as an 18-year-old in 2003-04, when Mario Lemieux still played for Pittsburgh and Crosby wore a Rimouski sweater.
"I felt like everybody wanted to run over me with their car," Fleury said.
And not a Maserati or a Porsche, either.
Fleury had experienced rough spots before—what NHL goaltender doesn't—but this slump followed his uneven play in last season's playoffs, when the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins were unexpectedly bounced by Montreal in the second round.
Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero were so displeased with Fleury's 7-6 record and .891 post-season save percentage, just a year after he allowed Detroit only two goals in their final two games of the Stanley Cup finals, they warned it would be different early this season.
Despite a more strenuous training camp routine for Fleury, the Penguins started 7-8-1 and dropped their first three games in their new arena, resulting in the 26-year-old goalie drawing much of the blame and criticism.
Fleury doesn't believe he played all that poorly, but simply had a dip in confidence following a couple of early 3-2 losses to Philadelphia and another to Montreal in which the Penguins blew a lead in the closing two minutes.
The turnaround came during that Nov. 12 game. Some fans, recalling how Fleury bounced back from a Game 5 blowout loss to Detroit in the 2009 finals when they cheered him wildly before Game 6, began chanting, "FLURRR-eee, FLURRR-eee."
More and more fans picked up on the chant, and soon Consol began to sound as if it might during a playoff game.
"I won't forget that," Fleury said.
His self-belief restored, Fleury hasn't looked back since that 5-1 victory, going 33-14-5 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. For the season, only Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Ilya Bryzgalov have more wins than the goalie who grew up in Sorel, Quebec, near Montreal.
"He's been the guy that's given our team confidence," Bylsma said. "A lot of our wins have been because of him. He deserves to be our MVP and I think he deserves to be mentioned as league MVP."
Fleury has enjoyed big seasons before—he has won 35 games or more three times—but this has clearly been his best. Even with Crosby and Malkin sidelined with injuries for nearly half a season apiece, Fleury has been so steady and predictable that Pittsburgh has stayed near the top of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.
Despite their 2-1 loss at Tampa Bay on Thursday, the Penguins went into the weekend four points behind Philadelphia in the division and conference races.
"I think it's something where we have been strong all season, guys have been playing hard in front of me blocking shots and helping me out," Fleury said.
During the off-season, Bylsma added expensive defencemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to holdovers Orpik and Kris Letang, giving a team long known for its high-scoring stars unaccustomed depth along the blue line. Florida coach Peter DeBoer said it might be the best top four when the playoffs begin.
Those defenceman, and the entire team's willingness to buy into Bylsma's defence-comes-first concept, have helped Fleury maintain the steadiness he’s not always displayed in his game.
"This is by far the most consistent I've ever seen him," Orpik said. "I think confidence is big going into games, expecting to win. It seems like we have more momentum going into the playoffs."
If Fleury plays the way he did in April, May and June 2009, and he has for much of this season, the Penguins have a chance. Play the way he did last spring, and they won't.
"Can't wait," Fleury said. "It's the best time of the season."