Published April 27, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- Game 7s are Marc-Andre Fleury's best friend. And his worst enemy.
Fleury played about as well as a goaltender can play in a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 two years ago as the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first road team in 38 years to win that last possible game in the last possible series.
Fleury's sprawling, last-moment save against defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom to preserve the Cup-clinching 2-1 victory is one of the great moments in Penguins history -- one that will be replayed as long as the Final is played. It doesn't get much better for a goaltender than that.
Then there was last year.
The defending Cup champion Penguins prematurely exited the postseason in the Eastern Conference Semifinals as the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens closed down Pittsburgh's 49-year-old Mellon Arena with a 5-2 victory in Game 7. Montreal scored less than a minute into the game and jumped to a 4-0 lead, chasing Fleury. It doesn't get much worse for a goaltender than that.
Pittsburgh, a low-scoring, win-with-defense team since Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were hurt months ago, went into Game 7 of its first-round series against Tampa Bay on Wednesday badly needing the Fleury of two seasons ago to show up.
The Fleury who wasn't present as the Lightning won 5-1 in Game 2 and 8-2 in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center, and again by 4-2 in Game 6 in Tampa while surging back from a 3-1 series deficit.
The Fleury who has been outplayed by 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson in this series; Roloson has a 2.05 goals-against average and .941 save percentage to Fleury's 2.77 GAA and .890 save percentage.
"It was a pretty tough loss last season, but it's a new season playing a different team and it's a different situation," Fleury said Wednesday. "We've got to be ready and prepared for what's coming tonight."
Coach Dan Bylsma, fresh off a short but up-tempo morning skate, is confident he knows which Fleury will be in the building.
"He's a big part of our success, big part of our team, big part of the confidence that we have developed and how we play games and how we win games," Bylsma said. "In the past, he's shown his colors in these games. He's won some big games for us, made the big save. He's been in his fair share of these big games."
The Penguins have won four of their previous five Game 7s. But while the franchise is 5-0 in Game 7s on the road, the Penguins are only 2-5 at home -- including the Montreal loss.
"He's not won every one, but he's really stepped up his game and shown he's a big-time goaltender," Bylsma said. "He's our team MVP for a reason and he's a big part of the confidence in how we play the game."
He's also difficult to read before a big game because Fleury always displays the same demeanor: loose, but not overconfident; locked in, but not intense to a fault.
Fleury will appear in his fourth Game 7; he and the Penguins also won at Washington 6-2 to close out the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009. That game is best remembered for Fleury's exceptional save on an Alexander Ovechkin breakaway early on that, had Ovechkin scored, might have shifted the momentum to the Capitals.
All this Game 7 experience should help Fleury, but he's not sure what all of these previous games would mean against Tampa Bay. If anything.
Just as if he's not sure if Roloson's 5-0 record in elimination games means anything.
"It would have been nice to get it done a little earlier. Now we're here and it's a big game for everybody here," Fleury said. "This game is always very intense, very exciting, it should be fun to play."
Does Fleury feel any different pressure than usual going into this Game 7 -- the first one he's played without Crosby in the lineup?
While NHL teams that held a 3-1 lead are 220-23 overall in playoff series, Game 7s always create an air of uncertainty and tension -- even for a team like the Penguins, who have 12 players with at least one Game 7 on their resumes.
"I don't know how you measure pressure," Fleury said. "It's a big game, I think everyone in the room knows it, the guys on the other team feel as we do, and that's what's going to make it an exciting game."
While these Penguins knew the injured Crosby (concussion) isn't ready to play -- Bylsma said there's no change in his status -- defenseman Kris Letang said it was comforting to know No. 87 would be in their locker room before and during the game.
Crosby watches each game from a private box and passes on to Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato, and his teammates, any tidbit he thinks might be helpful.
"He's watching the game, comes down and talks to us, little details that we do on the ice," Letang said. "He can notice little things that we can do better. He's a leader, on and off the ice. He brings a presence to the room and brings a lot of confidence around."
Much like the goaltender does.