We’ve reached the point in Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury‘s career in which any mention of his regular-season success is quickly followed by a caveat.
“Yeah, that’s great, but we need to see it in the playoffs.”
Although it’s a challenging spot for Fleury to be in, it’s also deserved. For whatever reason, in each of the Penguins’ last five trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Fleury has seen his level of play drop from whatever he did in the corresponding regular season.
His springtime results hit an all-time low in the offensive madness that was the Penguins’ 2012 first-round loss to the Flyers, in which Fleury allowed 26 goals on 157 shots against for an abominable .834 save percentage. But for as rock-bottom as his numbers were in that bizarre free-for-all, last spring had to be the most disconcerting for Fleury’s psyche, as he was replaced with Tomas Vokoun after four mediocre games against the Islanders and had to watch as his season-long backup helped Pittsburgh to a berth in the Eastern Conference final.
The Penguins went about the task of rebuilding their franchise netminder – the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft – in a number of ways. First, coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero expressed public confidence in Fleury immediately following the team’s playoff ouster. Second, they promoted organizational goalie coach Mike Bales to an exclusive gig in Pittsburgh, replacing the departed Gilles Meloche. Finally, longtime NHL coach Jacques Martin was hired, with the goal of adding a defensive voice to a staff that may have been neglecting its own end of the ice at times.
As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Joe Starkey laid out in a column this week, these changes weren’t all about making Fleury more comfortable, even though that’s part of the idea. Rather, the Penguins’ “soul searching,” as Starkey calls it, was aimed at optimizing the current roster for the tight-checking games that every contender has to win if it wants to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Fleury has proven good enough to prevail in tight playoff situations, but not as frequently in full seasons under Bylsma as he did in 2008 and 2009, the latter of which was the spring Bylsma took over for Michel Therrien. In short, while Fleury isn’t one of the top five goalies in the league, he should be able to flourish given enough defensive support.
As Starkey writes, shifting to a “three-lane” defensive system was a significant part of the Penguins’ offseason adjustments. Also known as the “left-wing lock” popularized by Scotty Bowman with the Red Wings in the 1990s, this three-lane approach means that a forward drops further back to assist the defensemen in some forechecking situations.
It’s a more passive tactic, and it’s resulted in fewer quick counterattacks for Penguins’ opponents. As a result, Fleury has faced fewer legitimate scoring opportunities, helping his early-season save percentage upward to .930, well above his career mark of .910.
While Fleury has looked more calm that usual in scrambles around the goal – perhaps the result of work with Bales – I’d attribute his October success more to Pittsburgh’s revamped neutral-zone strategy than any changes he’s made to his technique.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s improvement by Fleury, a more defensive attitude or a combination of both if the Penguins continue to allow around two goals per game; they’ve surrendered just 20 in the first nine contests. This club has posted impressive results in the past several seasons, but it needed some fine-tuning to reach its championship goals.
If Fleury gets some of the credit for the Penguins’ increasingly stingy ways, so be it. For how potent Pittsburgh is offensively, a slight defensive tightening may be all it needs to realize its potential.