x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fleury finds his A game for Penguins

Everyone's talking about Sidney Crosby's first Stanley Cup, while Evgeni Malkin deservedly took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Everyone's talking about Sidney Crosby's first Stanley Cup, while Evgeni Malkin deservedly took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. And, make no mistake, Pittsburgh's pair of young superstars have earned every plaudit they receive. But without Marc-Andre Fleury in the Penguins net in Games Six and Seven, it's the Detroit Red Wings who'd be planning parade routes and making summer plans with Stanley. Of that, there can be no doubt.

Fleury, a netminder who's had his share of ups and downs, turned in a dominant breakout performance just as the post-season reached its most dramatic. There's never been any debate about Fleury's talent and pedigree - the quick, long-limbed stopper was drafted first overall in 2003 - but the gregarious goalie has sometimes struggled with consistency and confidence. It was Fleury, remember, who surrendered a late, bad-bounce goal in the third period of the 2004 World Junior Championship gold medal game. It was a crushing defeat, a soul-sucking loss that first betrayed Fleury's fallability in net.

Critics even wondered whether the young goaltender could recover. Or, was it destined to be one of those losses that hijacks a young player's career, replacing promise and ability with self-doubt and diminishing returns? In the seasons that followed, the questions lingered. Fleury didn't take hold of the starting job in Pittsburgh until late last season, not really. A mid-season injury in 2007-08 opened the door for backup Ty Conklin, who came in and enjoyed a 14-game unbeaten streak, putting Pittsburgh back in a playoff spot - and Fleury on notice that his No 1 hold was tenuous at best.

Like a true champion, however, Fleury responded. He reclaimed the starting job, and was a force as the Penguins marched to the 2008 Cup final. Detroit proved too much, and the stage was set for 2009. Like last year, Fleury had a bumpy regular season - as did the entire Pittsburgh team - but the February arrival of coach Dan Bylsma put the Pens on a different track. And, like last year, once the play-offs began, Fleury quickly entered a Patrick Roy frame of mind. Another duel with state rival Philadelphia? No problem; Fleury blew away Flyers counterpart Martin Biron.

Round Two brought the match-up the hockey world had been waiting four years to see: Pittsburgh versus Washington, Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin. And it lived up to the hype, a true battle for the ages. But in the end, it was Fleury outshining Simeon Varlamov, the Caps' rookie phenom of a goalie. Third round? Carolina. Please. Four and out, and they were back in the pendulum with Detroit once again.

And, like last year, the pressure was on Fleury to outshine Wings goalie Chris Osgood, 38, a proven veteran and three-time Cup champion - but who had the worst goals-against average and save percentage in the league this season. As good as Osgood was, Fleury was better, and he buried that heartbreaking world junior loss with superlative saves, whether it was a breakaway stop on Detoit's Dan Cleary in the final 90 seconds of Game Six or that unbelievable save in the final seconds off of Nicklas Lidstrom, a sprawling, falling stop that preserved Pittsburgh's victory, sanity, championship and their parade.

It was the perfect ending to a wonderful Stanley Cup final, and it might even give Fleury a second chance to redeem himself on the international stage. After his big-game performances, Fleury deserves to be one of Canada's goalie candidates for the 2010 Olympics.And beyond. smccaig@thenational.ae