Commentary

Fleury's performance defines greatness

Updated: May 5, 2010, 1:20 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- In the hours before he would board a plane to Montreal and steal a game from the Montreal Canadiens to give his Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-1 series lead, netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was asked about the heckling he expected to hear in his hometown.

He looked quizzically and asked for the question again.

He still didn't get it, and you started to think this might be a Monty Python skit.

"I'm not kidding I missed the beginning again. What is 'eckling?" Fleury asked earnestly.

Booing, jeering.

"Ah, OK, thanks. Sorry, that's the part I missed," Fleury said with that trademark loopy grin.

Maybe that's why a guy who stoned the Detroit Red Wings in four of the final five games of last year's Stanley Cup finals and was named to Canada's 2010 Olympic team is still viewed with such skepticism by the hockey community.

Too goofy, maybe. Too happy-go-lucky. Something, though. Until he does what he did Tuesday night. Fleury turned away all 18 shots he faced, including eight in the third period, to preserve a 2-0 victory.

"A big performance for him tonight," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's kind of, there, he's done it again."

People will scoff. Eighteen shots? That's an appetizer for shot devourer Jaroslav Halak, who stopped 24 of 25 shots Tuesday but couldn't handle a blazing Evgeni Malkin power-play slap shot 1:16 into the third period that turned out to be the winner. How can you laud a player who stood around counting the Stanley Cup banners in the Bell Centre rafters for most of the second period while the Penguins hemmed Montreal in its own zone, outshooting the Canadiens 13-3?

Because it comes down to one thing: When Fleury needed to be great in the raucous Bell Centre, a place where his family was on hand to watch and where he had not played particularly well in the past, he delivered the goods. Plain and simple.

"He's got things to prove and he came up huge," said Maxime Talbot, another of the core of French-Canadian Penguins for whom this series carries so much emotion.

Who does he have to prove things to, Talbot was asked?

"To himself and to us. He proved himself today that he was the goalie," said Talbot, one of Fleury's closest friends on the team. "He made the big save when we needed him [to]. That's the Flower we like to have and he's awesome."

Coming into this game, Fleury's .889 save percentage was the worst of all eight remaining goaltenders in the second round. He had given up 17 goals in his past five outings and allowed at least three goals in six of eight games this spring. Hardly inspiring stuff for jittery Pittsburgh fans.

The feeling after Game 2 -- a 3-1 win for the Habs -- was if Halak could stay in the zone, Montreal might just be in line to unseat the champs in large part because of a perceived mismatch in goal. And then, as he has so often done over the past two NHL postseasons, Fleury was able to put aside those questions and doubt to become the man again. Just like that.

"There have been questions. We have seen them at different times of his career," Bylsma said. "He's never been one to put up blazing numbers, but he's always been one to answer the game-save situational or has thrown up great games, and I think our room believes in the guy we got in the net."

Quite simply, this is what defines greatness.

Never mind the numbers. Did Grant Fuhr put up great numbers for the Oilers? No. Did he win five Stanley Cups? Yes. Whether folks will ever see that greatness in Fleury, like it or not, it was on display Tuesday night when, for a long time, the game was there to be had for either team.

"Time and time again, he's proven it," Bylsma said. "I think it was a tough game for him in terms of, there was some action and then there was a lull for a while, and then he had some ferocious action there. It wasn't just one save."

Indeed.

In a sloppy first period, the Canadiens had better scoring chances. Mike Cammalleri snapped one high after cutting to the middle. Maxim Lapierre rang one off the crossbar. But the Penguins found their legs in the second period and kept the Canadiens hemmed in their own zone for long periods of time. The trend continued into the third period, when Malkin hammered home what would eventually be the game winner.

As time ticked away, though, the Canadiens mounted a significant push in the last half of the period. Fleury denied Cammalleri, the Habs' most dangerous shooter, on a cross-ice pass. The Pens goalie then got a pad on a dangerous Brian Gionta shot from the opposite side and denied Tomas Plekanec on a dangerous deflection.

And then, it was over.

Pascal Dupuis dumped in an empty-net goal and, all of a sudden, the Canadiens face a must-win situation in Game 4 on Thursday. If Montreal loses, Pittsburgh can take care of business at home Saturday.

Somehow, that lousy save percentage and those other games seem so inconsequential.

"I think a lot of the criticism, from wherever it's been coming, it hasn't been coming from in here throughout the playoffs," said defenseman Brooks Orpik. "I think he's been fine, to be honest. He hasn't probably stolen us a game like he might have tonight, but if we look at most of the goals we've given up in the playoffs, it's been breakdowns by the guys in front of him. It really hasn't been him letting in really soft goals. Maybe one or two. I think it's easy for fans to kind of just point the finger at him. A lot of the time, it's not very justified.

"I don't think he's played as well as he can play up until tonight, but I don't think he's played bad at all."

After the game, Fleury was swarmed by media in both official languages. His thoughts?

"That was pretty good," he said. "To win that game at home with a shutout was pretty cool."

Well, at least there was no 'eckling.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.