Although Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t at his absolute best Wednesday night in New York, he certainly finished on a high, denying all five Rangers shootout attempts as the Pens skated out of Madison Square Garden with a 4-3 victory.
His counterpart Henrik Lundqvist almost matched Fleury in the shootout, stopping the likes of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, Jussi Jokinen and Pascal Dupuis before Brandon Sutter went five-hole in the fifth round to give Pittsburgh its fifth straight win.
That the game ended with a first-class goaltending exhibition was no surprise: among active netminders with at least 20 career shootouts, Fleury (.773) and Lundqvist (.759) are first and third in save percentage, respectively. Partially as a result of Fleury’s shootout excellence, the Penguins have 57 wins and a .655 winning percentage in the tiebreaker, both of which are NHL bests.
As we know, Fleury has been a good-but-not-great goalie for most of his 10-year Penguins career. His previous best save percentage for a season in which he played more than 35 games is .918, a mark he is on pace to top if he can stay near his current .924 pace.
Beyond statistics, Fleury has struggled with bouts of inconsistency – most notably in the Pens’ last four playoff appearances – which have downgraded his reputation in Pittsburgh and around the NHL. However, the 29-year-old always looks comfortable is when the game comes down to a series of one-on-one battles.
Fleury’s clean sheet Wednesday night put all his shootout prowess on display:
Fleury’s lunging saves on Mats Zuccarello (first round) and Brad Richards (fourth round) demonstrated how tough it is to deke around the first-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. Both Rangers shooters made shifty moves to the forehand, but couldn’t stuff it around the athletic Fleury. In Richards’ case, Fleury flashed the poke check before recovering to make a save not many goalies in the world could pull off.
New York’s Rick Nash (second round) and Dominic Moore (third round) eschewed the deke option in favor of the shot. Against Nash, Fleury stood up the whole way, covering the high-glove wrister; one round later, Fleury determined that Moore was trying to stash it through his legs, so he put a knee down to stymie that.
Benoit Pouliot was the lone Ranger to try a backhand, but Fleury smothered his attempt and forced a high-and-wide miss. It seems Fleury is usually one step ahead of the opposing shooters, a result of accumulated repetitions and athletic instinct.
Maybe there’s an intangible quality in play, too. As the HBO cameras (and microphones) chronicled three years ago on the first NHL 24/7 series, Fleury relishes the challenge of tending goal, especially when it’s an individual showdown. While some goalies may feel exposed apart from their teammates, Fleury thinks it’s his time to shine:
Combine that palpable love of competition with a rare skill set and you have the NHL’s all-time top shootout goalie. When extra standings points are up for grabs in the tiebreaker, the Penguins have a distinct advantage in Fleury.