The Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender is proving once again to be unpredictable and inconsistent. He's a coach's and fan's nightmare.
Fleury was basically a nonfactor through the first three games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of these NHL playoffs—which in his world is a good thing. He wasn’t by any means spectacular with an .899 save percentage and 2.99 goals-against average after a pair of 4-3 victories and a 4-3 loss.
Through almost 60 minutes in Game 4 on Wednesday night, Fleury was arguably the Penguins’ best player. He stopped 38 of 40 shots, and the Pens looked like they were going to grab a 3-1 series lead.
But in four terrible minutes, Fleury’s ugly side—the playoff monster that has spoiled the Penguins’ championship hopes since winning it all in 2009—reared its head and turned the series on its backside as the Blue Jackets finished off a comeback 4-3 victory with a late tying goal and an early winner in overtime.
The blame doesn't belong squarely on Fleury's shoulders. His team was too undisciplined in front of him and allowed too many shots. However, he looked just awful when the situation became most stressful.
Coming out to play a hard dump-in as the clock ticked toward zeroes in the third period, Fleury missed stopping the puck when it took an awkward hop.
Then panic set in.
He turned and flopped and attempted to block R.J. Umberger’s blind pass out to the front of the net. He couldn’t. Fleury also couldn’t get back into his net in time to stop new Columbus hero Brandon Dubinsky from putting the puck into the net with just 24 seconds left in regulation.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was grilled on his goaltender’s play. Although he didn’t blame Fleury, he didn’t exactly rise to his defense, either.
“It ends up being a mistake,” Bylsma said in his presser aired on the NHL Network. “I don’t know what it hit. He never really even had a chance to play it. It ends up leaving them an empty cage.”
Cue the rehashing of Fleury’s troubled playoff past.
You can set your watch in April by a Fleury post-season meltdown. Guess in Pitt it's a Doomsday Clock. #whiff— Chris Stevenson (@CJ_Stevenson) April 24, 2014
Fleury will need a shrink after tonight! That was awful!— Matthew Barnaby (@MattBarnaby3636) April 24, 2014
Why, oh why oh why...with his history of allowing awful goals at bad times did Marc-Andre Fleury leave his goal???— Mike Brophy (@HockeyBroph) April 24, 2014
In Fleury’s defense, the sequence that led to the tying goal was a tough play off the boards with a little bad luck involved. But his actions after missing it were not the picture of calm, and he had no chance at blocking Dubinsky’s resulting gift, which also got past Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang as they tried to drop in front of it.
Crosby addressed the hop in his postgame chat with reporters on the NHL Network.
“For a puck to come out like that … I didn’t really see it but it I’m sure it had to bounce or take some kind of weird hop,” said the Penguins captain. “It’s always easy now to question things but if it doesn’t take that hop then we’re probably out of the zone.”
If it doesn’t hop, they have a series stranglehold.
As it stands now, the Pens face a best-of-three scenario with home-ice advantage, but also a goalie who will be pounded by the press for the foreseeable future and no doubt in need of the sports psychologist he agreed to see last summer as the team set in motion a plan to get Fleury to avoid the mental breakdowns that have been plaguing him in the playoffs.
As far as breakdowns on Wednesday night, the game-winning goal on a wrist shot by Nick Foligno should be more troubling to Penguins supporters than The Hop. An innocent-looking wrister shouldn’t beat an NHL goaltender if he’s not screened or dealing with a deflection. Weak goals happen, but the timing on Fleury’s part couldn’t have been worse. Especially as an encore.
I watch goals like the Foligno one in OT and it makes me think Penguins will never, ever win another Cup with Fleury as their No. 1 goalie.— Ken Campbell (@THNKenCampbell) April 24, 2014
To Fleury’s credit, he came out and addressed the media in his locker at the Nationwide Arena. He didn’t say much directly about the last two goals, but felt good about his game to that point.
“It was a good game,” he told the NHL Network. “Forty shots and two goals before that bounce went in the net. We’ll move on.”
But will the team move on with Fleury?
They went to backup Tomas Vokoun last year when Fleury struggled to make simple saves—a nice collection of some of his all-time flubs can be seen here—but we don’t have that luxury this spring.
Vokoun is still recovering from a blood clot that has kept him out most of the year and only recently was called up from a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League. Rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff has been backing Fleury up all season, but it’s a huge risk putting someone with that little experience in even if you have little confidence in your veteran starter.
The series is tied. The Penguins have more skill. They have home-ice advantage. Now isn’t the time to panic.
That’s best left to Fleury, and his shrink.