With only one game on the schedule between now and next Monday, we’ve arrived at a natural point to assess various aspects of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season to date.
Following Wednesday’s home tilt against the Capitals, Pittsburgh will have 48 games in the books, with 10 to go before the three-week Olympic break. In other words, we’re a little more than halfway to the regular-season finish line.
As always is the case in hockey, goaltending comes under heavy scrutiny. That’s especially the case with the Penguins, as veteran Marc-Andre Fleury seeks to set a solid baseline from which to launch a playoff redemption.
The common narrative with Fleury this season is that, under the tutelage of new goalie coach Mike Bales, he’s refined his technique to great effect. To the untrained eye, Fleury appears to be slightly more under control than he has been in recent years, although that could be confirmation bias at work.
Among goalies with more than 20 games played, the 29-year-old Fleury is 12th with a .918 save percentage. If he is able to maintain that, it would match his best save percentage for an NHL season in which he participated in more than 35 games.
But save percentage, while more indicative of performance than goals-against average or (dear God) wins, still leaves a lot to the imagination. Jesse Marshall of Faceoff-Factor.com looked into how Fleury matches up with the rest of the league in more advanced goaltending metrics.
Marshall laid out three advanced stats used to evaluate goalies, and Fleury came out slightly above average in one, slightly below average in another and almost exactly average in the third. So the question becomes: Is average netminding enough for the Penguins?
Early returns would seem to indicate that it is. Even though Fleury’s been middle-of-the-pack, the Penguins (33-12-2, 68 points) lead the weak Metropolitan Division by a remarkable 17 points entering Tuesday’s play. Pittsburgh is on pace for 118 points, which would be a franchise record in the shootout era.
Whether judging by traditional or possession-based measures, the Pens are one of the NHL’s best on the granular level, too. Pittsburgh is fourth in goals per game (3.1), seventh in goals allowed per game (2.4) and in the top third of the league in shot-attempt differential in most situations.
I ridiculed goalie wins earlier, but the fact that Fleury leads the NHL with 26 while delivering average results tells us all we need to know. If the Penguins continue to play anywhere near their current level, they won’t need a Conn Smythe-worthy performance in the spring to challenge for the title.
In his 10th NHL season, Fleury is probably as good as he’s going to get. Fortunately for him, his current level is enough to deliver victories while wearing a Penguins sweater.