Fleury's confidence, maturity kicking in
John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer Feb 15, 2007, 11:03 AM EST
There are many reasons why the Pittsburgh Penguins are on an 10-0-1 run and closing in on the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead: They're playing their last seven No. 1 draft picks; Sidney Crosby is running away with the NHL scoring lead; Evgeni Malkin is likewise running away with the rookie scoring race; Jordan Staal hasn't been in the minus category since early December and is threatening to outscore his brother, Eric, this season; and 15 players are in the plus category, many of them recent arrivals there.
The Penguins have doubled their points from a year ago, from 32 to 69, won 18 more games than at this point last season and have increased scoring by nearly a goal a game.
But if Crosby, Malkin and Staal's production and the increase in Pittsburgh's overall team scoring were the only factors, the Penguins would be winning and losing games by 8-7 scores. They're not. They've become a tight defensive team for several reasons: Coach Michel Therrien's disciplined system, the development of four solid lines and the maturation of the defense and goaltending. The Penguins have surrendered only 175 goals so far, down from 222 a year ago, or a decrease from 4.04 goals-per-game to 3.1.
"Our defensive play is really improved from last year. That's one of the biggest differences," said starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the first-overall pick in the 2003 Entry Draft. "That's something that we really needed to do. Our coach put in a good system defensively and everyone has been really focused. Our defensemen have been awesome in blocking shots and clearing away rebounds."
To compare his record to a year ago is to wonder who's wearing Fleury's equipment this season. After going 13-27-6 in 50 games last season with a 3.25 goals-against average and .898 save percentage, Fleury now ranks fourth in the NHL with 28 victories, against only 12 losses and seven overtime losses and has a 2.83 GAA and .906 save percentage. Like his teammates, Fleury's stats have improved dramatically over the course of the season.
"Our coach has been playing four lines and it's been working great," Fleury said. "Everyone is getting rest and can play with more intensity."
Fleury took a shelling in a 21-game stint in 2003-04 and again last season, but it didn't seem to shake his faith in himself. Teammates agree that his positive attitude and belief in self helped him to get to this point. Defensive leader Sergei Gonchar was asked what's different about Fleury this season.
"In my opinion, he's more confident. He always had the skill and the talent," Gonchar said. "Since Day One, you could see he was going to play here. It took him a while to get his confidence. Now that he has that confidence, that's the biggest difference from last year to this year."
"The more games you play, the more confident you're going to get," Crosby explained. "When you see your team get that insurance goal, or a goal that ties the game or puts you ahead, that gives a goalie more motivation. It works both ways. There's been a lot of times when we needed him to save us and we try to help him out too. He's just got confidence in himself and we're confident that if he gives up a couple of goals, we're still going to be able to score while he shuts the door."
The Penguins beat the Nashville Predator's, the NHL's top team, in Nashville last week, their biggest victory in the Crosby era. Predators center Jason Arnott said Fleury was sensational in that game.
"Yeah, he was," Crosby agreed. "You can't go far without strong goaltending and he has been the difference in winning and losing this year. He's had a lot of games where he's faced 30 to 40 shots and he's kept us in there and given us a chance to win. That's so important. The team has a lot of confidence in him."
Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero credits Fleury's increasing maturity, as well.
"It's confidence and maturity," Shero said. "He's getting there, his confidence is high and he's maturing, but remember, he's still a 22-year-old kid. He's gone through a lot and this is a really good year for him. He's playing in meaningful games for the first time in his NHL career. He has responded well and that's great for his development."
Shero sensed a positive change in Fleury early on.
Fleury blocks a shot by Dallas Stars left wing Loui Eriksson Friday, Jan. 26, 2007.
"He's been on a roll from the first game of season," Shero said. "He has that confidence and knows he's a good goaltender. Goalie coach Gilles Meloche has done a good job with him on the mental side as well as working with video and with reassuring him at times. That goes with coaching."
"Marc-Andre has more confidence but the big thing is that he is more under control," Meloche said. "His positioning is a lot better than it was earlier. He was trying to do too much. We've got him relying less on reflex and more on positioning.
"He's maturing. He's a year older and he's playing with a better team. He's not seeing those back-door shots like before, when we were more helter-skelter out there. He's playing off his defenseman and his positioning is better."
Meloche said Therrien's system has been a big factor in helping Fleury get on his game.
"We're a lot different team now," Meloche said. "We have a system and everyone is buying into it and it's paying off. Everyone knows where they are going and they're working harder at it. It makes Marc-Andre's job a lot easier. You start winning games, you get more confidence and the puck looks bigger."
Meloche disagreed when he was told Fleury seems a lot happier and confident. A lot of NHL goalies don't like to talk after practice on the morning of a game. Fleury is like, "Hi, guys. What's up?"
"He's been like that since he got here. He never changed, he's always been that way," Meloche said. "He went through some tough times, but he never changed his attitude. He's a workaholic who is always working on his game. Sometime, we have to chase him off the ice.
"He never stopped believing in himself. He's got the right attitude for a goalie. If you don't believe in yourself, you can't play goal in this league."
The Penguins have the added benefit of having on staff former GM and current senior advisor, Eddie Johnston, a two-time Stanley Cup winner. Shero said Johnston discusses goalies with Meloche and gives his input. Meloche and Johnston were having one of those talks in a quiet corner of the dressing room when they were interrupted so Meloche could talk to a reporter.
"At 71, Eddie is sharp as a tack and has made a lot of valuable observations," Shero said. "Gilles incorporates those suggestions and passes them along to Marc-Andre and Jocelyn."