Pittsburgh's 'man' in net just can't stop smiling
PITTSBURGH -- One might have forgiven Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury if the grin had faded just a little with all the questions and the criticism and the high-ankle sprain and the boring days of rehab and the trip to the minors for conditioning.
And did we mention the questions?
But it's still there, that face-splitting, infectious grin.
Not sly or put on, but almost Cheshire cat-like, as though it's become a bodily function like breathing or blinking.
Was Fleury worried he might not be able to return to the No. 1 job when his high-ankle sprain healed, given how well Ty Conklin had played during Fleury's almost three-month absence?
"I didn't know what to expect really, but I just sort of came in and tried to play good. I missed hockey for so long, so I was just happy to be back with the team," Fleury said Thursday about 14 hours after his first career playoff shutout in a 4-0 win over the Ottawa Senators that gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a 1-0 series lead.
He kept the game puck and it's now with a collection of pucks wrapped in tape with the date and score on them. They mark special moments, like his first NHL win back when he was 19, his 11 NHL shutouts and his 40th win a year ago.
Where are the pucks?
Volchenkov looks to return
• Ottawa defenseman Anton Volchenkov met with reporters Thursday displaying an ugly cut above his left eye courtesy of an Evgeni Malkin slap shot in Game 1. The puck struck Volchenkov's helmet with such force it cut him for 15 stitches, leaving a swollen area around the impact zone.
Sens coach Bryan Murray seemed uncertain about whether Volchenkov would be able to get a helmet to over the cut and play with safety in Friday's Game 2, but Volchenkov was more optimistic.
"Probably. Probably play tomorrow," said the rugged defender, who finished second in the league in blocked shots despite missing 15 games to injury.
"He'll play if he can play, we know that," said Murray, who acknowledged it would be a huge loss if Volchenkov cannot go.
If Volchenkov is out, veteran Luke Richardson will take his place in the lineup.
• Murray was asked what he was going to do about trying to get some goals out of an injury-depleted lineup that has now been shut out three times in its last five games.
"That's the question of the day, obviously," Murray said.
One thing the coach will try is to start Game 2 by moving hard-nosed veteran Martin Lapointe to the team's top line with Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. It's hoped Lapointe can create some space for Spezza and Heatley to get into better scoring positions.
• Murray agreed that being successful in the playoffs often means overcoming adversity. He just wished the Penguins would get to try some of it, too. "I'd like to see the other team to have some things to overcome," Murray joked.
-- Scott Burnside
"Just in a pile. In a pile somewhere," Fleury said. "One day, one day I'll clean it up, but right now ..."
Perhaps, in some way, this effervescence, this child-like quality -- and remember he's only 23, not all that far removed from childhood proper -- that made people ask if Fleury was "the guy" to take this emerging Eastern Conference power to the promised land.
For many, it was at best a 50-50 proposition, Conklin or Fleury for these playoffs, especially given Fleury's ordinary play in the first round last season, when he finished with a 3.76 goals-against average and .880 save percentage.
But Fleury dedicated himself to his rehabilitation program after going down with his high-ankle sprain on Dec. 6. And the fact Conklin was playing so well actually gave Fleury more time to get healthy. Then, Fleury went down to Wilkes-Barre with the Penguins' AHL affiliate and worked hard to turn in a 1.42 GAA and .950 save percentage in five games.
"He had a great attitude and obviously played very well there," GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com Thursday. And when he came back to Pittsburgh, Fleury didn't seem to fret that he was essentially auditioning again for the starter's role. He didn't try to do too much, but, at the same time, emphatically seized the starter's job.
It was a competition, Shero said. "No one was going to hand the job to Marc-Andre, especially the way Ty had been playing."
Fleury had won four straight starts, stopping 84 of 88 shots, before he was injured. Then, when he came back, he went on a 10-2-1 run.
Defenseman Ryan Whitney shook his head when asked about his ever-smiling netminder. "He's the best guy," Whitney said. "He's like a 10-year-old."
And while some have questioned his ability, Fleury now exudes a confidence that might not have been there before, Whitney said. His rebound control is solid, he is kicking pucks into the corner and sucking up loose pucks in front of the net.
In the playoffs, solid goaltending, and especially solid goaltending while killing penalties, are crucial.
"Last night was perfect example of both those things," Whitney said, referring to almost two minutes of 5-on-3 power-play time enjoyed by the Senators, who were 0-for-7 on the man advantage. "No one in this room has any doubt that he can do it and lead us."
Another defenseman, Brooks Orpik, said Fleury has provided consistently high level of play since he returned from injury. "I think before it was peaks and valleys, highs and lows," he said.
Former NHL netminder Gilles Meloche, the Penguins goaltending coach, said Fleury has learned to play the position and not just rely on his athleticism.
"You can't just play on reflex in the NHL," said Meloche, who broke into the NHL in 1971-72 and finished his career in Pittsburgh in 1987-88. "His positioning is much better. He had a tendency to chase pucks before. He's more under control now. The game is slowing down in front of him."
One of the consistent themes surrounding this Pittsburgh team this spring has been the notion of maturity, hoping that hard lessons learned at the hands of these same Senators a year ago has somehow forged a better Penguins team.
Does Fleury believe he has learned?
"It's always a little more exciting, a little more intense in the playoffs," the native of Sorel, Quebec said, his voice still bearing a heavy reminder of his Francophone upbringing. "That's why maybe last year, maybe I got a little overwhelmed -- is that a word? -- I just tried to relax this year, go out, play and have some fun."
This Penguins team has small galaxy of stars. There is Sidney Crosby, of course, Evgeni Malkin, who finished second in NHL scoring this season, Sergei Gonchar, who will get some consideration for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, Marian Hossa and Gary Roberts, who had two goals, including the winner, in Game 1.
Although Fleury was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, he has been almost cocooned as he has learned to be an elite player, putting behind him questions about his ability and durability.
"Now he sees the play, he's more mature. He's not surprised with plays or with shots," Penguins coach Michele Therrien said. "There's no doubt, this is the best I've seen from Marc-Andre Fleury the last month and a half."
No wonder the kid is grinning.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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2008 NHL PLAYOFFS
After a wild race to the finish, the NHL playoffs are set. Heading into Wednesday's opening night, Scott Burnside previews the first round:
• No. 1 Montreal vs. No. 8 Boston
• No. 2 Pittsburgh vs. No. 7 Ottawa
• No. 3 Washington vs. No. 6 Philadelphia
• No. 4 New Jersey vs. No. 5 New York Rangers
• Vote: What are your first-round picks?