Monday, 8 November 2010

Wilting Flower?

Just what is going on with Marc-Andre Fleury? This is a guy who backstopped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 07/08 and 08/09, and delivered a championship the second time around. The poor guy has had people on his back ever since he entered the league in 03/04 - and while it's true that he has struggled for consistency, particularly with rebound control and concentration, a lot of the stick has been unfair. His regular season career numbers - 149-112 record; .906 save percentage; 2.84 GAA - are hardly terrible, yet people seem to jump on him every time he has a poor game or lets in a weak goal and want him yanked as the Pens No.1 netminder.

Personally, I've always been a strong supporter of Fleury - and he's usually bounced back when it's really mattered (the 55 saves in the Triple OT win in Game 5 in '08; that ridiculous save on Nik Lidstrom in Game 7 in '09). This season, however, he's really got me worried. Flower has started in 8 games so far this season and won only once. He's allowed 3 or more goals in every game he's completed to sport an ugly 3.55 GAA, and allowed 2 goals on 5 shots in 6:56 against Phoenix on Saturday before Dan Bylsma replaced him with 'backup' Brent Johnson, who has continued to significantly outplay Fleury.

Worse, of the 64 goaltenders who have played at least 1 game this season, Fleury is ranked 62nd with a horrific .853 save percentage (Amusingly, former Pens favourite Johan 'Moose' Hedberg is 64th). Stats can of course be very misleading, but having watched every game Fleury has played this season, it's clear something is not quite right. He's still produced the odd athletic stop, but he's appeared more awkward in net than I can ever remember, has often been poorly positioned and has rarely made stops when he's really needed too - hence his 6 losses.

What is perhaps most concerning is the apparent downward trend Fleury has been on for the last couple of seasons - statistically at least, even if not results wise. He got his first 40 win season in 06/07, and then the team as a whole were given a rude welcome to playoff hockey, playing poorly in a 5 game exit to Ottawa. Despite playing in only 35 games the following year, Fleury had a career best save percentage (.921) and GAA (2.33) in the regular season, and then proceeded to come within 2 wins of the Stanley Cup by continuing his stellar play throughout the playoffs (.933; 1.97 GAA).

When the Pens won the Cup in 08/09, Fleury was solid, but is interesting to note that his regular season numbers declined to a .912 save percentage & 2.67 GAA and his postseason play was weaker overall despite going all the way (.908 & 2.78). Last season, his save percentage regressed further to .905. His GAA improved slightly to 2.65, though this was only due to facing fewer shots - testament to the shot blocking skills of Mark Eaton & Jay McKee perhaps. His performance in the playoffs was then unspectacular - he only mustered a .891 save percentage and gave up a number of cheap goals, allowing 4 on 13 shots to be chased by the Habs in the 5-2 Game 7 loss.

And then of course we have his awful start to this season, which even featured an early déjà vu moment when he gave up a soft game winner to Montreal's Scott Gomez. Marc-Andre Fleury clearly is at his best when he is confident and calm on the ice. I'm hopeful that what appears to be a worrying downward spiral for a goalie with huge potential can be reversed and MAF can lead the Pens to future success. Sidney Crosby said at today's practice that 'unfortunately for a goalie, the goalie’s always the center of attention more than anyone, so there’s always a lot of pressure that comes with that.' And he's right, there is. But somehow, Fleury's got to find a way to deal with it better and regain some of the confidence that makes him one of the best goalies in the NHL. Coach Bylsma had this to say today: 'Does he understand confidence? Well, he understands that he doesn’t have it right now.' That's great - but how are you going to help him get it back?!

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