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The Power That's Returned to 'Flower': Revising Marc-Andre's Postseason Legacy

For the life of me, I cannot come up with a comparable for what Marc-Andre Fleury is doing in these playoffs. Resurrections of this magnitude rarely appear anywhere outside of the New Testament. Yet, here he is; back from the dead, leading (yes, leading) Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference Final. The liability has been converted to an asset, and share-holders that stuck with him through his penny stock days (i.e. me) are loving it.  

There is a theme of this piece centered on rebounds. On the micro level, Fleury was able to respond from a 5-2 beat down in Monday's Game 6. In a hostile Verizon Center, he stopped all 29 Washington shots in Wednesday's series finale -- stealing the 2-0 victory. He was nothing short of spectacular in Round 2's only shutout. Fleury's name was apropos for the the barrage sustained. Even 5-on-5, the ice tilted in the home team's favor from the onset. To the nervous spectator, the game's first eight minutes read like a continuous power play for the Capitals. 

Throughout all 60 frantic minutes, however, Marc-Andre Fleury met every challenge. He single-handedly kept the lid on Pandora's Box. A Washington win would have spelled abject disaster for Pittsburgh's fan base. The Capitals/Penguins "rivalry" is built on a principle that the latter will always have the postseason upper hand. It's why labeling it as such is tongue-in-cheek. Historically, the head-to-head playoff tally is lopsided: 38 wins for the Pens to 24 by the Caps. Nine of the ten series victories have gone to Pittsburgh, with the path to all four franchise Cups passing through D.C. That's called a good omen for number five this year.  

It is not unlike the playoff prowess the Yankees once held over the Red Sox. That all came crashing down with one particular get-together known as the 2004 American League Championship Series. In a string of four consecutive October losses, a curse was seemingly lifted for all-time. Look at what that match-up has become since: three World Series titles in Boston and one in The Bronx, New York. 

This hockey iteration was not that same 3-0 lead, but the repercussions of a Washington win would have been just as disastrous. Allowing a rival to finally get past their ever-growing road block -- in comeback fashion, no less -- breaks their mental shackles forever. You'll never scare them again. Worse, the Law of Averages has years' worth of retribution to bestow upon the once-dominant side. Fortunately, all that comeuppance was delayed for at least one more year. Thanks, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist. Kick that can down the road.

Wednesday's epic Game 7 will go down in hockey lore, not just in Pittsburgh. Yeah, yeah, at long last "Mr. Game 7" -- Washington's Justin Williams -- lost one (falling to 1-7 in his career).

But the lede is being buried by national sportswriters. This is not about the Washington "Choking Dogs" (Tony Kornheiser's delightful nickname). Sure, they moved to a lifetime record of 4-11 in Games 7s; with the Penguins now carrying a 6-0 mark in such games on the road. This isn't about what Washington (and Columbus) could not accomplish. So, if you came here looking for yet another "Monkey Still Squarely on the Back of Alex Ovechkin" story, you're about to be let down. The Presidents' Trophy winner did nothing to stop themselves on Wednesday. An antagonist had to actively participate -- and participate well -- to prevent relief and joy from being felt by that sea of red.     

This brings me to the macro-scale rebound in this article. The first star of last night's contest was an unlikely one (to many). It was an oft-scorned 32 year-old goaltender, who shook off the cobwebs of five pucks getting behind him two days prior. He has been the stabilizing force throughout this postseason push for Pittsburgh. If this were a handful of seasons ago, he would have been more likely to allow five more goals in Game 7 than pitch a shutout. Reputations are difficult to amend. In that, we are seeing a Fleury do the most non-Fleury things he's ever done. Rather than wilting, this "Flower" is back to blossoming. 

Much like flat-Earth theory, saying "Marc-Andre Fleury is not a good playoff goalie" is an ideal folks are going to have to let go of. None of what's negatively transpired this May has been his doing. An argument that once had merit is being disproved each and every day the sample size grows. 

A 2013 article insinuated the Penguins were trotting out the league's worst-possible option in net. Back then, it was sadly tough to dispute. Fleury was skittish, constantly lost a feel for his posts, was a step slow to recover on wrap-around attempts, overly aggressive to leave the crease, pawed at loose pucks like a kitten at its water dish, and cleared out enough head space for his opposition to comfortably reside. His inauspicious postseason play, to open this decade, pushed the "yips" as close as they have ever come to the hockey vernacular.  

"You can set your watch in April by a Fleury post-season meltdown. Guess in Pittsburgh it's a Doomsday Clock." -- CJ Stevenson

"I watch goals like the Foligno one in OT and it makes me think the Penguins will never, ever win another Cup with Fleury as their No. 1 goalie." -- Ken Campbell

Google it for yourself; the videos warrant it all. I couldn't stop shaking my head as I watched the GIFs. They were memories I attempted to block out (particularly the misplays from the 2013 series vs. the Islanders). It's like the second the rinks installed the "Stanley Cup Playoffs" paint -- near both blue lines -- Fleury would panic. A majority of those on hand would follow suit. 

The various titles representing ineptitude were especially disheartening because this same man carried the Pens to two-straight Stanley Cup Finals; reaching the top of the mountain in 2009. Recency bias and the prevalence of social media certainly tarnished the legacy of a solid goaltender. How bad do you have to be for outsiders to glance past multiple Cup runs and nine career playoff shutouts? To reach "worst ever" status, though, the poor play has to be sustained for some time -- to upstage and overshadow any remnants of good. Alas, there's no arguing these numbers:

Game: SV/SA  Result

2011
Game 5: 10/14   L
Game 6: 17/21   L
Game 7: 22/23   L

2012
Game 1: 22/26   L
Game 2: 23/30   L
Game 3: 22/28   L
Game 4: 22/25   W
Game 5: 24/26   W
Game 6: 18/22   L

2013
Game 1: 26/26   W
Game 2: 38/42   L
Game 3: 32/36   W
Game 4: 18/24   L

The capstone moment occurred on May 7, 2013. He stopped a mere 18 of 24 New York Ranger shots. It was rock bottom for faith in Fleury. The loss brought his record to a dismal 4-9 over 13 consecutive playoff starts (three straight losses to end 2011, four more in 2012, and two before he was mercifully pulled in 2013). During that span, he could barely keep the puck out of his net on 85% of his opponents' attempts (294/343). 

In 2011, doubt first crept; his playoff quality -- and the 3-1 series lead -- both evaporated in an instant. The three straight losses to Tampa Bay were particularly head-scratching, given how well Fleury played that year. He was named an All Star, the team's in-house MVP, posted a 36-20-5 regular-season record, had his highest-ever Hart Trophy finish (9th) and then-highest result in the Vezina Trophy vote (8th). That first-round handshake line was supposed to be full of congratulations and not condolences. Fleury's playoff scar tissue and the "Curse of Consol" began garnering serious concerns. 

The disconnect from his regular-season results and that of the postseason became staggeringly disparate. In seasons where he knocked on the door of Vezina Trophy conversation, he came up smaller and smaller in late April and early May. There was no real explanation. And no one had the gall to ignore his positive results in the 82 tune-up contests. What were the Pens to do in the playoffs (even they knew it wasn't going to end well)? 

After that 2011 meltdown, his troubles snowballed rapidly. Polished and sound in games September through March, he became a pee-wee blooper reel in the league's tournament. Every time he stepped on the ice, a caricature of his stellar regular-season self took the net. The word "choke" popped up frequently in corresponding Fleury publications. Some people went so far as to trace his letdowns, under the brightest lights, to a 4-3 collapse in the 2004 World Juniors. 

His string of six consecutive playoff losses, stretching over two seasons, was historically awful. Fleury made only 116 saves (average of 19.3 per game) on 142 combined shots; a measly .817 SV%.

In one overly-embarrassing early playoff exit (2012), Fleury gave up 26 goals (4.63 GAA) in just six games to the Philadelphia Flyers. That .834 save percentage sure looked like the end of his days in the sun -- even if the team he was on experienced success. He was forever going to be known as the goalie you win "despite" not "because of". Even among the most diehard supporters, Fleury was the enormous anchor weighing the S.S. Crosby-Malkin down. 

The national sentiment quickly evolved: pick anyone from a set of 50 contemporaries, put them on any of those "underachieving" Penguins teams ('10, '11, '12, '14, '15), and that deep roster would advance to the Conference Final -- at least -- each time. Tomas Vokoun practically proved that supposition to be true. Never brought into Pittsburgh to be a world-beater, it was he, and not Fleury, that started all the games in the 2013 Conference semi and final. That run was the deepest the Penguins advanced in the playoffs between their two most-recent Cup victories. 

The fact that a past-his-prime 36 year-old journeyman took the reigns in the most important games of the year was telling. Vokoun outperformed Fleury, if judged simply by advancement in the bracket. If not for his untimely blood clot surgery -- and subsequent midseason retirement -- he might have taken full-time control of the Pittsburgh net in 2013-14 and beyond. Then-coach Dan Bylsma clearly preferred that scenario. He was set to once again ride Vokoun through the playoffs, in that subsequent year; meaning more reps as the #1 in the regular season leading up to it.  

Fleury was that annoying gnat that wouldn't go away. His constant availability was his best asset. At that point in time, he had only missed 39 starting opportunities (out of 738 team games) due to injury. A lone ankle sprain in 2007 was his blip on the radar. Former GM, Ray Shero, infamously inquired, "Where am I gonna find a goalie on short notice who starts 65 games a year every year?"   

Perhaps Fleury was bailed out by the absence of a Plan B (free agent, viable trade partner, or qualified draft selection) to replace Vokoun -- and likely take over. By the time Vokoun was officially ruled out for six months, the window to bring in a proven second goaltender had closed. Scouts said prospect Tristan Jarry, the team's 2013 second-round draft pick, wouldn't be ready for a few years. Unheralded minor leaguer, Jeff Zatkoff (2006; third round), was brought in as a stop-gap to spell Fleury. Star of the '16 Final, Matt Murray (2012; third round), wasn't even on the radar yet. Recalling him was out of the question that early. So the fates were really on Fleury's side. Essentially, he stayed the starter by default -- or lack of established options. 

Sticking with Fleury in a primary role for '13-'14 was a risk, as the noise around "when will the great Sidney Crosby ever win another Cup?" grew deafening. He did reward the team with stellar regular-season play... again. In the subsequent three seasons, as a full-time #1 goalie, Fleury posted the following stat line: 108-55-20 / .919 save percentage / 2.33 GAA / 20 shutouts (NHL high during that span). It was his first mini-resurrection. In that same three-year string of regular-season brilliance, his playoff line read: 8-11 / .916 save percentage / 2.36 GAA / 2 shutouts. For all intents and purposes, Fleury was "Back 2 Good". 

Unfortunately, that ugly "C" word just had to derail his progress. You know, the evil injury bug that seems to hit the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room harder than any modern franchise: concussion. 

It was entirely plausible for Fleury to lead that Amazin' Pens team to the same greatness as Matt Murray. The midseason coaching change -- from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan -- formed a true team of destiny. Their second-half run was so unstoppable that even a mediocre Fleury should have been able to seal the deal. If he wasn't suffering from post-concussion symptoms, this playoff legacy revision could easily have come a year ago. 

Last year's Cup win was the ultimate bittersweet exuberance. Fleury's name is again etched on the legendary trophy, but he did very little to contribute to its recent acquisition. His health prevented him from appearing in more than 79 total minutes of playoff hockey. Meanwhile, Murray tied a rookie record with 15 playoff wins (matching Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall). The hero of the moment narrative cemented the haters' belief that it could be done without Fleury. 

The issue is that Murray wasn't exactly groomed to be the team's short-run future. He's not exactly the first overall pick that Fleury was. I believe his small frame will always make him a chronic lower-body injury risk. But, performance a year ago was too strong to ignore; the hands of Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan -- entering his first full season -- were forced. They had to give Murray a contract extension and #1 goalie status, respectively.    

It left Fleury in trade-deadline purgatory. His regular-season successes warranted suitors. This sure would have been different if he wasn't able to play through his tribulations. Any other team or circumstance and Fleury might have splinters in his butt old enough to be in kindergarten. His value would have hit the floor. Since he had a recent track record, however, no general manager in the league would have second-guessed the Penguins' decision to part ways this March (dumping his $5.75M/year contract for a veteran blue-liner and future second-rounder). However, Rutherford and staff stuck with a man who has been with them from his beginning (2003, as a 19 year-old). Call it an insurance policy that's paid off. 

The team inevitably felt captive by an emotional debt. How do you tell locker room glue -- with two Stanley Cups -- to pack his things and leave? Fortunately for all those involved, side-stepping the awkwardness has played itself out. And the potentially uncomfortable moment (Fleury lifting his third Cup, while only having six career wins in the Final) won't come to fruition. If there is a 2017 championship banner in this team's future, it'll mean Fleury has likely reached double-digit career victories in the Final. Ah, the benefits of staying loyal (err, sweeping a problem under the rug). 

No athlete, in any sport, has had his stars cross and uncross as often as Marc-Andre Fleury. He was lucky to keep his starting job in 2013-14, unlucky to lose it last year, and luckiest to get it back -- right as the 2017 playoffs kicked off. In reality, Fleury was ten minutes of pregame warm-ups away from never touching the ice this postseason. There were no signs to suggest otherwise. With Murray's health status 100% entering the day, only a true professional would have been prepared to play -- from the opening puck drop, on short notice -- in that Game 1. This continual preparation is why it didn't take Fleury long to feel comfortable being "the guy" every night. 

Very few figured he would ever return to form. He was never going to get a vaccine for his epidemic of soft goals. He was never going to be comfortable in raucous road arenas; simple, smooth, and square with his technique and rebound management. There was no chance we'd ever again see the goalie with a hidden dial to make the game slow to his pace. In short, Marc-Andre Fleury was never going to do exactly what he's doing this spring. 

For perspective, Fleury has surrendered 31 goals this entire postseason (six more than 2012 in twice as many rounds). This new, galactically-stupid playoff format has pit him against two of the league's four best teams. The series that just concluded was the third-ever to include a Game 7 between two teams with 110+ regular-season points. The shame of it all is that it occurred this early in May.

He has had to square off with two Vezina Trophy winners in back-to-back rounds (three if the Rangers had won their series). In spite all the talk surrounding shot blocks, his corps of defensemen -- minus Kris Letang from the outset and Trevor Daley in Game 6 -- has still let a ton of attempts get through. The Penguins have been out-shot 425-335 in these playoffs. Likewise, the penalty kill has been mediocre -- 80.0% (T-10th best). In their quest for the Cup last season, opposing power plays were thwarted 85.1% of the time. 

In twelve playoff games this season, the Blue Jackets and Capitals did well to tame the unbridled speed of Pittsburgh's top nine forwards; forcing role players to want to chip in. Their attempts to play out of character has translated more to playing out of position. In perceived "need to score" scenarios, D-men -- either entering the rush, failing to clear simple pucks, or outright turning it over -- have extensively hung Fleury out to dry. True, the gamble of the blue-line pinch may have been the reason why the Penguins won Game 7. But there is a flip side of that aggression. Yielding odd-man chances is a postseason category Pittsburgh would rather not be leading the league in, but are.

During the Game 6 home loss to Washington, the postseason "boo birds" -- typically aimed at Fleury -- were, in fact, raining down on everyone but him. The educated fans understood the score was not indicative of the goalie's performance. And it's been a trend as of late. When his squad fails to tally the game's opening goal, you can see the pressure of leveling the score in the eyes of the stars. The issue -- in this Washington series specifically -- was that all the open ice vanished. The Pens had no room to set up shop, and so the gravity of chasing a deficit increased. It's an account that needs to be rewritten next round if this year's club desires a repeat championship.    

Stacking the deck even more against Fleury, he only started three of Pittsburgh's final 11 games (0-2-1 record). His last win was on March 19, nearly a month prior to Game 1. He was as rusty as it gets. As a cherry on the sundae, Sidney Crosby missed a game and a half to yet another concussion. Since rejoining the starting unit, the greatest player in the sport has been what you'd expect from a recent (and frequent) sufferer of head trauma.

And with all of those impeding factors, Fleury looks like a 24 year-old version of himself; maybe better than we've ever seen him. Engage him sporadically, with fewer than 25 shots a game, and expect disaster. The contrary has played out so far, which is why Fleury is 8-4 between the pipes. As a volume goaltender, he's at his best when focus is required at a rate of once every other minute (30 shots). 

This is also true of the quick turnaround in playoff scheduling. It's easier to have short-term memory -- that proverbial "athletic amnesia" -- when the games come in quicker succession than the regular season. The rare loss presents a nearly-immediate chance at redemption; sometimes as close as 40 hours after one game ends. If things are going well, the ice retains your groove. It all helps to explain Fleury's .927 save percentage (nearly .100 better than his performance five years ago). Here's how he measures up with the primary goalies in this year's playoffs: 

Goaltender: SV% (GAA)

Pekka Rinne: .951 (1.37)
Martin Jones: .935 (1.75)
Jake Allen: .935 (1.96)
Carey Price: .933 (1.86)
Marc-Andre Fleury: .927 (2.55)
Henrik Lundqvist: .927 (2.25)
Devan Dubnyk: .925 (1.86)
Cam Talbot: .924 (2.48)
Tuukka Rask: .920 (2.24)
Frederik Andersen: .915 (2.68)
Craig Anderson: .914 (2.49)
Braden Holtby: .909 (2.46)
John Gibson: .908 (2.80)
Corey Crawford: .902 (2.83)
Sergei Bobrovsky: .882 (3.88)
Brian Elliott: .880 (3.89)

This list puts two things in perspective. 1) That Blues/Predators series was an unworldly goalie duel. 2) Marc-Andre Fleury ain't the worst playoff goalie. He may have been, but he's clearly exorcised some of those demons. Pressed into action, one would expect to see a fill-in Fleury at the bottom. What historical precedence hinted that anything close to this ranking was possible? This is why I say I've never seen a turnaround like this before. 

Additionally, Sabermetrics have begun to bleed into hockey. There are new stats that further support the notion of a reformed goalie in Pittsburgh. I'm not usually one to buy into any of that advanced mumbo jumbo, but their existence definitely comes in handy when the numbers favor your viewpoint. Without wading into the weeds on what they are and what they mean (not entirely certain myself), Fleury is tied for fifth among 17 qualified playoff goalies in GA%- (92) and third in GSAA (2.80). Something called Corsi(?) has also been uncharacteristically bad for the Penguins, meaning Fleury's had to be stellar to overcome it. Re-entering Lesser Nerd Land, his 326 even-strength saves rank second in these playoffs. Moral of the story: Fleury isn't holding the Pens back.   

I tend to gravitate towards Chicago goalie, Corey Crawford, as an objective baseline from which to properly judge Fleury. Both are 32 years old, both have lifted two Stanley Cups and appeared in two All-Star games. To many, their achievements (200+ NHL regular-season wins) are nothing more than the byproduct of insanely-talented offenses on their side. Right or wrong, postseason award shows suggest the infamous "game manager" perception -- a backhanded compliment slapped on blase quarterbacks -- is there. Neither has really figured in any Vezina Trophy vote. Writers and analysts never confuse Crawford or Fleury with the premier puck stoppers of their era. Regardless, they can (and have) won their team titles. 

The 2012 playoffs, in particular, showcased the similarities in what should have been mirror-image career trajectories. The 27 year-olds posted 2-4 records, with save percentages in the .800s, in first-round exits. The obvious discrepancy was in experience in the fabled "Second Season". It took Crawford much longer to earn the #1 goalie status for the Blackhawks. He finally seized the reigns when Antti Niemi was traded away the season before. By that time, Fleury had already started 56 playoff games for the Penguins. 

It is why the 2012 criticism for Crawford was muted; he was "young" and "growing into" his first dozen playoff games. For Fleury, he was a victim of his own glory days. Though the same youthful age, he wasn't given the same pass by the media. Previous accomplishments raised expectations to an unfair heights; making it more difficult for fans to stomach.   

That year marks a crossroads in mapping their respective playoff careers. As one goalie got better with every future series he played, the other saw all four wheels fall off his wagon. Undeniably, age is the not the same as mileage. 

Ostensibly equal in every on-paper way, the eye test suggested something quite different. One looked fatigued -- possibly to the point of early retirement -- as the other was arriving on the scene. Crawford and Fleury were like the Looney Tunes allegory of Sam the Sheepdog punching the clock as his replacement, George, clocks in.

The skill set of a star goaltender is supposed to diminish, not go careening over a cliff. Crawford is a great case study on a natural regression. His playoff save percentage in 2013: .932 (1.84 GAA). This year, five seasons later: .902 (2.83 GAA). The save percentage has slowly, but steadily, decreased each and every year -- with the GAA obviously increasing. The (2x) Cup winner is a half step slower than when he was in his twenties. It's cost him roughly 0.7% in playoff save percentage per year. This is the consistent slope that has fans, of any sport, referencing the idiom: "Father Time is undefeated". 

Like a starting pitcher, a goaltender's worst enemy is a deep scouting report. In both sports, longevity actually breeds advantages to the offense. Pitchers and goalies have tells, rhythms, defaults, routines, tendencies, ruts, etc. They have to make the first move. The hitters and skaters study up and, in the split-second height of the game, react accordingly. Look how often the Capitals went high glove on Fleury. If you're in the mood -- and this subject matter interests you -- check out the sharp decline in Justin Verlander's numbers vs. the Cleveland Indians; as he's started against them year after year after year. It was a long way to go for a "Tigers can't change their stripes" pun, but I made it.  

Essentially, the length of a career will naturally shave a goaltender's stats down over time. If Fluery annually lost 0.7% in playoff save percentage -- from his highest career value of .933 in 2008 -- then he should be hovering around a .870 figure in 2017. In two games last year, he had a .875 number, so that value falls in line with this hypothesis. It shows that last year he finally settled back into a comfort zone; he simply lacked starter's reps.  

The shock of it all is how abruptly he's swung the pendulum -- past the midpoint -- to the other extreme. Marc-Andre Fleury has deviated so drastically from the norm (of his peers, based on age) that it makes this development all the more intriguing. At his worst, he was hemorrhaging playoff SV% to the tune of 1.6% per season. When Matt Murray went down, how could anyone honestly expect the first-round fate of the Penguins to be any different than Crawford's 0-4 outcome? 

The ship was taking on water for years. It just got patched up enough for experts to call it serviceable, and yet its sailing at speeds it never did when new. 

No one has their best playoff performance in their 11th go-round. And no one that talented has ever missed the mark -- on the newly-named "Crawford Line" (graphing consistent decline in expected playoff save percentage after a career best) -- as bad as Fleury did in 2012. The craziness is how below the average his deepest valleys were and how high this current summit he's climbed is.   

Typically, when an athlete is done, he/she is truly done. "Thanks" to a lower body injury to Matt Murray, Fleury has been given the role of Lazarus on the 2017 big stage... and he's nailed the performance thus far. 

I, for one, never lost faith that this was still possible. You can check older social media posts of mine for proof. Okay, maybe I expected an eventual dead-cat bounce, not this boomerang. But the organization deserves a ton of credit, for not discarding floundering personnel. His salary is steep for an "understudy"; those whose value becomes pillaging the occasional regular-season win on the second night of a back-to-back. The front office was gazing into a clear crystal ball.  

Say all you want about inflated goaltender statistics in the modern game. Fleury will undoubtedly exit Steel City someday, but he'll do so as the leader in wins, save percentage, and goals against average for a proud hockey franchise. And he'll do it all in spite of the early struggles of the team in front of him. Truly, the plane barely got off the ground; his initial record in the league was 17-41-8. It means that since the start of 2006, when the tides finally shifted, he's had the best regular-season win percentage of any NHL goaltender. If nothing else, these two weeks have provided a more-contemporary playoff high note to share with our kids -- as to why number 29 is up in the rafters. 

Interestingly enough, his playoff numbers have quietly eclipsed that of team icon, goalie Tom Barrasso. The fellow two-time Stanley Cup winner was 61-54 in 119 career postseason games; .902 SV% and 3.01 GAA. Wednesday's win gave Fleury an identical 61 wins (to 49 losses), lifted his career save percentage to .908, and lowered the GAA to 2.64. I love Tommy Barrasso as much as the next Penguins fan. The man is a legend of the stack pad generation. I'd still take Marc-Andre Fleury in any big game in the history of Pittsburgh hockey.

What people have quickly forgotten is how bad those pre-2005 Pittsburgh Penguins actually were. It's not like they stumbled into Sid the Kid's top selection because they were a put-together roster. I refer to the time period as the Jan Hrdina era; remembering a 2001 Tribune-Review full-page "Meet the Team" feature that left me with lots of uncertainty about the future. It was every bit the "who are these [blankin'] guys" scene in Major League. But out of that downturn came a cornerstone -- around which the current championship foundation stands -- Marc-Andre Fleury.

Through it all, Fleury has remained the consummate teammate. He's been selfless in his back-up role and captain positivity. If you don't believe me, peruse all the names of past friends from the locker room he carries with him on his newest mask design. The man has a genuine team-first attitude and cares deeply about his brothers.

No matter how this plays out, I'm beyond pleased to see one of my all-time favorite players regain true form. Sure, it may be short-lived. He could easily revert to old ways against Ottawa. It will not change my sentiments that Marc-Andre Fleury is a big-time performer. He's proven enough in this 2017 journey to get the haters off his case once and for all. And it is jinx proof to say that. If he continues to play well, great. If he doesn't, there's a more-than-capable contingency waiting in the wings. What a luxury to have a Cup-winning #1 goalie safely stored inside the "In Case of Emergency Break Glass" box. 

Matt Murray has fully recovered from his apparent groin pull; on the bench as Fleury's back-up in Wednesday's Game 7. Even so, the net belongs to "Flower" in the Eastern Conference Final. You have to ride the hot hand. But the smallest slip-up against the Senators -- or Western Conference foe in the Final -- will return order to the regular-season hierarchy. Expect a quick hook if starts giving up "cheapies" (see: third period, Game 5, Round 2).   

Regardless, Fleury will finish with a .500 record (or better) this postseason. Knowing he didn't cause an early playoff exit -- this time around -- might have to stand as his sole parting gift. Pundits have his days in Pittsburgh running out momentarily, despite surviving close calls for years. The irony is that it might take the creation of a 31st NHL franchise, in Vegas, to finally reel in Fleury.

An expansion draft, this June, adds a potential landing spot. Should he voluntarily waive his no-movement clause, the Penguins will not be able to provide any resistance. If he wants to be a #1 again, dusting off the metallic gold pads (worn in the 2014 Stadium Series) might be his best bet. Indeed, Pittsburgh would be "hurt" by a lack of compensation, but the quiet departure -- to a member of the rarely-adversarial Western Conference -- would nip revenge-driven pariah headlines in the bud. That garbage couldn't be further from the truth. 

For all we know, this could turn bizarre in a hurry. One thing is for sure; contract discussions will not breakdown into a Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers soap opera. Unlike that Hall of Famer, Fleury relishes his mentor role. His desire to make sixty starts in a season (for the seventh time in his career) will never overtake his respect for team.

Fleury isn't blind to all the hypotheticals playing out in the media. His current out-of-body performance could definitely stem from its audition nature. I believe Marc-Andre Fleury's got a lot left in the tank. He is not even close to old, especially for a net-minder. 500 career wins is a milestone definitely within reach; sitting on 375. If it comes to fruition, I'd like to be on-hand for that special night. I'd love it more if he is still accumulating those lofty totals in Pittsburgh black and gold. But I understand the business side of professional sports enough to forgive any front-office decision. That's all talk for some future day.   

If he must go, I can envision no better chapter closure than winning the last game on the league's calendar. Lifting that third Cup would be an indelible memory for me. It would epitomize perseverance in a career marred by unfair criticism. Then, wherever and whenever it's needed, I'll stand at the pulpit in defense of his complicated postseason reputation. Legacy: revised. 




Footnote: What's in a name? How superstitious do you want to get? Perhaps the fact that it's not Consol Energy Arena anymore has something to do with it. Entering these 2017 playoffs, Fleury was an anemic 6-13 on home ice -- since moving out of Civic/Mellon Arena. As a playoff starter in the new building, he only once won multiple home games in the same series: 1-3 (2011), 1-2 (2012), 1-1 (2013), 3-4 (2014), 0-2 (2015), and 0-1 (2016). Changing its corporate naming partner to PPG Paints has seemingly flipped the script for Fleury; he's 4-2 at home this year. His next opportunity comes Saturday night, with Game 1 against the Senators.

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