Marc-Andre Fleury's Game on the Path to a Renaissance? by @griffTHW

A funny thing happened at CONSOL Energy Center last weekend.  Squared off against the Vancouver Canucks in a Saturday matinee, the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury surrendered a tally that conjured up images of his recent playoff ghosts.  After the harmless looking shot from center ice floated on net,
rolled up and over Fleury's chest and trickled over the goal line, the crowd held its collective breath and waited to see how their oft-maligned goaltender would react.  To their delight, "The Flower" simply let the gaffe roll of his back:

"I said a couple bad words to start, and then just relax.  Kind of laugh at myself a little bit when we scored the goal after. It’s a lot more fun to laugh at it now that we won, but sometimes it happens and you’ve just got put it aside and try to stop the next puck. I knew the guys would come back and get some big goals.” - Marc-Andre Fleury, after allowing a fluke goal Saturday afternoon
From there, Fleury was a rock in the Penguins net as he guided a largely outplayed Pittsburgh club to a 4-3 shootout victory.  And, while a mid-October win won't erase the heartache of postseasons past, one can't deny that Marc-Andre's play to this point in the season has been more than encouraging.




Fleury's Stigma

Ask any hockey analyst, reporter or fan and they'll likely tell you that anything Fleury accomplishes during the regular season doesn't mean squat.  He can lead Pittsburgh to a division title, he can win 40 games, hell, he can win the Vezina and it really doesn't matter.  Whether it's fair or not, it's a reality in many people's eyes due to the struggles the Pens' franchise net minder has suffered from in recent postseasons. 

And, to an extent, it's true.  This is a squad that, year in and year out, has its eyes set on the ultimate prize, not just regular season success.  Anything short of that goal is deemed a failure for these Penguins.  As a result, Fleury may very well find himself at a crossroads; another poor playoff performance could signal the end of The Flower's time in Western Pennsylvania. 

But Pittsburgh has to get to the tournament to win it and, while it is admittedly early in the campaign, Fleury is shining as the Pens begin what they hope will be a journey to the club's fourth Stanley Cup.

The Supporting Cast

As we delve into what appears to be a make or break season for Fleury's time in Pittsburgh, the organization looks to be doing everything in its power to support its man between the pipes.  After all, the Penguins have invested a lot in Marc-Andre; it's not in the club's best interest for things to further unravel en route to an eventual divorce.

While not all exclusive to aiding The Flower, several offseason moves will surely benefit the goaltender.  Specifically, the addition of Jacques Martin to the coaching staff, the signing of Rob Scuderi in an effort to help anchor the blue line and the naming of Mike Bales as the Pens' goaltending coach will all have an enormous impact on Marc-Andre Fleury.

Jacques Martin

Jacques Martin may not be solely responsible but all signs point to his overwhelming influence over Pittsburgh's new defensive philosophy.  Where, for example, the forwards would once fly the zone in the hopes of transitioning to offense as quickly as possible, they now more readily support the play in their own end.  Consequently, the Penguins now typically boast five-man units capable of shutting down the opposition or, at the very least, limiting opportunities against.  To that point, the squad finds itself surrendering the NHL's third fewest shots against per game (25.6) and, perhaps even more telling of Martin's influence, ranked seventh on the circuit in blocked shots (150). 

And if Martin is largely responsible for those numbers, the veteran coach has already taken great strides toward making Fleury's job infinitely less stressful. 

Rob Scuderi

In all likelihood, the casual hockey fan rarely notices Rob Scuderi - and that's just the way the stay-at-home defenseman likes it.  Because the less you recognize Scuderi, the better he is playing.  Never one to put up big numbers or display a great deal of flash, "The Piece" plays a simple, fundamentally sound game in which he rarely takes chances and almost always makes the right play.  He blocks shots, he's durable and, frankly, he's the kind of defenseman goalies love to have playing in front of them.

One of the problems the Penguins have had over the last few years stems from the fact that the team has lacked a Scuderi- like defenseman along the blue line to help balance out his offensive minded teammates.  Actually, the club hasn't had such a player since, well, Rob, himself left for Los Angeles via free agency following the Pens' Cup victory in 2009. 

But that all changed when Pittsburgh surprisingly lured the reliable defenseman back to Western Pennsylvania during the off-season.  In doing so, Shero admitted he made a mistake when he let Scuderi walk prior to the 2009-'10 campaign. Now that he's back, though, Marc-Andre and the rest of the Penguins can take comfort in knowing that, once again, The Piece is on their side.

Mike Bales

Lastly, for Mike Bales' part, it's about bringing a fresh perspective to Fleury's game.  Given that Marc-Andre played under the tutelage of a single goalie coach during the first ten years of his career (hard to believe he's been in the league that long, isn't it?), the goal is to improve the net minders game by gradually implementing small adjustments that result in steady improvement:

“I had some ideas, technically, and I talked to Marc about it.  I suggest things, we go out and work on it and if he feels comfortable with it then he implements it into his game." - Mike Bales
It's a formula that will ideally allow Fleury to both build on the success he has found at the NHL level and return to the postseason form that helped him lead the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup.  Time will tell if that actually comes to fruition but it's hard to argue with the results to this point.

Living for the Moment

While there's obviously no way to tell how Fleury will react to the pressures of postseason play until the playoffs actually begin, there's no harm in living in the moment to appreciate what he accomplishes during the regular season.  Because, if you start overlooking what's going on now, you might miss out on some pretty impressive play in net:



More importantly, Marc-Andre is off to the best start of his career, boasting an impressive 1.74 GAA and .930 save percentage to go along with his 7-1 record.  It certainly helps that the team in front of him seems to have embraced a new commitment to defense but, to his credit, Fleury has been there when the Pens have needed him, providing key saves at pivotal moments.  Simply put, he's a vital cog to the team's fast start and looks like he's having fun in the net again.

If that, however, is too shortsighted for a fan-base that has visions of something more grand, they can always take comfort in knowing that the additions of Martin, Scuderi and Bales may well provide Fleury with the tools he needs to return to the form of a Stanley Cup winning goaltender.
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