After one of the most abysmal stretches of goaltending in Stanley Cup playoff history, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury rebounded to find his game ... and just in the nick of time.
The chants of “Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!” started raining down from the Consol Energy crowd even before the first note of the national anthem Friday night. They didn’t stop until reaching a deafening crescendo in the final moments of a long-awaited goaltending gem.
Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over Philadelphia in Game 5 of its first-round playoff matchup provided a much needed dose of sanity in a series that had set new marks for offensive fireworks or goaltending incompetence, depending on your perspective.
More important, it restored a faith in Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury that had seemingly vanished amid the hail of pucks that found their way behind him in the first three games of what is quickly becoming a series for the ages.
Suddenly, it’s the Flyers, who were up 3-0 after outscoring their intrastate rivals 20-12, facing the pressure, the skeptics and the uncertainty of a series victory that just five days earlier had seemed such a sure thing. That anxiety boiled over at the final horn of Friday’s game, when Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux smashed his stick over the goal in anger, and Scott Hartnell had to be separated from Penguins players with whom he had a, shall we say, boisterous disagreement.
The Penguins, considered dead in the water after Game 3’s prison riot on ice, are now the ones smelling blood.
And all because of a Flower that blossomed once again.
“He definitely was the difference in the game for us,” pointed out Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby. “When he’s playing like that, I think everyone’s pretty confident he’s gonna shut the door. We don’t like to have him tested that often, and with those big chances, but he was there. He was huge for us tonight.”
Fleury stopped 24 of 26 shots, including 14 in a dizzying, frantic third period when Pittsburgh seemed to be eternally stuck in its own end.
“We had opportunities. We had good looks,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. “Their goaltender made big saves at the end.”
Like stopping postseason menace Danny Briere on two back-to-back point blank shots from the left of the crease. Or hurdling a puck in front, only to drop in time to deny Hartnell a wide-open shot.
After the 8-4 shellacking by the Flyers in Game 3 pushed them to the brink of elimination – a game in which Fleury was pulled after two periods – Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma made a bold, if not delusional prediction. Fleury would start the next four games. Some clever snarkmeisters wondered why Bylsma was setting his preseason lineup already, but now, Fleury is just another impressive 60 minutes away from making his coach look amazingly omniscient.
“I think he was, especially at key times in the game, outstanding,” Bylsma said.
It was a far cry from the goalie who gave up 17 goals in the first three games. That three-game stretch was the worst by any goalie in the playoffs since late Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh gave up 18 in 1983.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik tried to let Fleury off the hook for that early ugliness – “We played terrible in front of him,” said Orpik – but there were plenty of soft goals among those 17. The man that probable Hart Trophy winner and teammate Evgeni Malkin said was the team’s real MVP suddenly looked like an AHL call-up thrown to the wolves.
But no more. Flower is back, and for the Flyers, that can’t be good.
“He’s been our guy, he’ll be our guy,” said Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, “and we have the utmost confidence in him.”
Game 6 is Sunday in Philadelphia. And that fourth game that Bylsma said he would start? Tuesday back in Pittsburgh. Where the chants can echo once more from the cheap seats.
“Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!”
Photos by Getty Images