Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Blame Game

I have counted. It's been 16 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days. Since that picture was taken. Since Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship. Since Fleury allegedly answered the questions and doubt that has dogged him through his career.

"Trade Fluery" opined one fan on twitter last night, using the unorthodox "u-e" spelling. "fleury is considered a part of the core. but his play is quickly making him expendable. and his contract an albatross" chimed in another.

Ten games into the 2011 season and the 26-year-old former first overall draft pick with a $5 million-a-year contract has played five games. He has won just one. He has allowed 3.4 goals-a-game, and mounted a pathetic .861 save percentage.

33-year-old perennial NHL backup, working for just over the league minimum at 500K, Brent Johnson has been between the pipes for the other five games. He has won four. His only loss came in a valiant 0-1 overtime game in St. Louis. He is allowing only 1.39 goals-a-game and is 3rd in the league with a stifling .951 save percentage.

And less than a year and a half later, in light of the goaltending controversy, the questions have once again bubbled to the surface. Is Fleury a liability?  Can he be a number one?

While Penguins fans seem to never back down from confronting even the slightest of perceived Crosby criticisms, Fleury has been so often the target of blame that it has become a joke among the fan base. It has it's own Facebook group and Twitter hashtag.

A year prior to lifting Lord Stanley's Cup, following a 2008 Finals loss to the Red Wings in which Evgeni Malkin was nearly invisible, Fleury received an inordinate amount of  criticism despite making 205 saves over the six game Detroit offensive onslaught. While he made a few costly mistakes, each one was magnified, whether it was his rebounds, tendency to overplay the puck, or making his way onto the ice.

He's been targeted so frequently that it almost feels like a knee-jerk instinctive reaction to defend Fleury. Undoubtedly he is struggling. And at the same time Johnson is playing as well as ever has. If Johnson wasn't so hot we'd just look to see Fleury play through it. You can blame him for his lackluster play, but with the exception of the 3-2 Montreal loss in which he allowed a late cheap goal, you can hardly blame the notches in the loss column on Fleury. 

The Penguins play fast and loose. While their defense leads the league in points, they've seen defensive-minded players leave via free agency one after another the past few years. Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton. Orpik still remains a force around the perimeter, arguably their only shutdown player Jordan Staal has yet to suit up this season due to a foot infection that is beginning to warrant it's own low-budget horror film adaptation. They allowed 237 goals last season, more than any other team that qualified for the postseason.

It's not easy in the Penguins crease. Even at the top of his game Fleury has never been a statistically great tender. Of the four seasons he's played over 40 games his best save percentage is a pedestrian .912. But despite an undeserved reputation that has followed him from his junior days, Fleury has been a big-game goaltender. He is unquestionably an asset with an uncanny ability to bounce back.

In the second greatest hockey game I've ever witnessed, game five of the 2008 finals, Fleury turned in an all-time great playoff performance, making 55 total saves, including the last 24 over two and half periods of overtime play in which one mistake would end the Penguins season.

In the first round of the 2009 postseason match-up with the Flyers Fleury stole games two and four, making, respectively, 38 saves on 40 shots, and an unreal 45 saves on 46 shots.

Following a 5-0 debacle in game five of the 2009 Cup Finals, again against the Wings, Fleury allowed a single goal on 26 shots in game six. In the decisive seventh game, with everything on the line, let's remember that while the eventual Conn Smyth winner hadn't scored since the first period of game four, and Crosby spent the majority of the 3rd on the bench injured, it was Max Talbot's two goals and Fleury's 23 saves on 24 shots that sealed the deal.

Tomorrow night against the division rival Flyers, play Johnson. Ride the hot hand, because that is what you do in hockey. Every season we relearn the importance of those early games when a playoff spot is decided by a single point. Play Johnson because he'll give us the best chance to pocket a couple points in the standings.

But make no mistake, in several months time when things really start to matter, Fleury will be in the crease for the Penguins doing what he has done over the past five seasons, giving the Penguins their best chance to win.

And shouldering the blame when they don't.