x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Perfect end for Fleury as Pens lift cup

The Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender puts in a decisive defensive shift when it mattered to help his team lift the Stanley Cup.

Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save during the final game of the Stanley Cup final.
Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save during the final game of the Stanley Cup final.

The question mark became the answer on Friday night for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Throughout the Stanley Cup finals the belief was that Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury simply could not hold off the Detroit Red Wings, the defending NHL champions when it counted. For a long time, it seemed his critics were right.

Fleury was 0-3 in the first three play-off games in Detroit, allowing 11 goals and looking like someone who had barely survived an explosion at a rubber factory by the time the Wings finished peppering him with hockey pucks. In what appeared to be the most critical game of the series, the Red Wings had bombed Fleury out 5-0 in Game Five, giving Detroit a 3-2 lead and control of home ice. Few doubted that something similar was about to happen even after Pittsburgh found a way to win Game Six at home, 2-1, forcing a return to Joe Louis Arena with Lord Stanley's Cup on the line and the pressure on young Fleury.

Fleury had been brilliant in Game Six, making 25 saves at home, but on the road he had been shakier than California's real estate until he came up big in Game Seven, stopping 23 of 24 Detroit shots including a diving save with one second remaining in the game to preserve a stunning 2-1 victory that brought the cup back to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1992. In hockey you win with the hot goaltender but who knew Fleury was hot? The Red Wings do now, after watching him stop 48 of the 50 shots they sent at him in the final two games. Of all those shots the one they will think about all summer was the one he took off his chest with one second remaining and the cup on the line. Nicklas Lidstrom picked up a rebound and launched what he thought would be the tying goal as time was running out.

It might have been, had Fleury not dug in his left skate and threw himself across the crease, diving through the air to take Lidstrom's shot in the chest as time ran out on both Game Seven and the Red Wings. "I knew there wasn't much time left," Fleury said. "The rebound was wide and I just decided to get my body out there and it hit me in the ribs so it was good." As Fleury tumbled to the ice he knew what he and his Penguin teammates had just done. They had beaten the mighty Red Wings, winners of four cups in the past decade, only four months after it appeared it was unlikely they would even reach the play-offs.

It was in the midst of a cold and confusing February that rookie head coach Dan Bylsma was elevated from the Penguins minor league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to replace the fired Michel Therrien. At the time Pittsburgh were 27-25 and going nowhere but Bylsma righted the ship, leading the Penguins to a 18-3-4 finish that got them into the post-season after losing the cup final a year ago to Detroit on their own ice.

Pittsburgh were down 0-2 to Washington and came back to win and were down 0-2 to the Red Wings and improbably did the same thing. After Game Five, the Red Wings had outscored Pittsburgh in Detroit 11-2 so when the Penguins forced a Game Seven it seemed an exercise in futility. No one outside of Pittsburgh expected the Penguins to be competitive because, well, in Detroit they had not been. Even after taking a 2-0 lead in the second period after Maxime Talbot scored twice, it only took a goal from Detroit's Jonathan Ericsson that cut the lead to 2-1 at 6:07 of the third period to convince most observers that Fleury's great collapse was about to begin.

When Niklas Kronwall drilled a shot that beat him but rattled off the crossbar and bounced harmlessly away with 2:14 to play you began to wonder just whose night it was going to be and when Fleury stopped a shot with less than six seconds remaining and then dived across the crease to block the rebound the reality finally hit you. "It's the stuff you dream of as a kid," said Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' 21-year-old captain, who had only one goal in the series.

That Pittsburgh could beat the Red Wings with Muhammad Ali in the stands wearing a Detroit jersey, Fleury in net and Crosby not putting the puck in the net, was, well, impossible to believe but believe it because it just happened. rborges@thenational.ae