Published: Monday, April 29, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Marc-Andre Fleury can hear the noise.
He's the question mark for these Stanley Cup-or-bust Penguins, or so say his skeptics, a group that includes many of the franchise's most diehard fans.
Keep talking, everybody.
Fleury has more than hockey on his mind.
“When hockey goes well, life is a lot easier for anybody; when life goes well, that helps, too — a lot,” Fleury said.
“When you have a little baby at home, that's a big plus.”
Estelle Fleury was born last Friday. She's the first child for Marc-Andre and Veronique Fleury, teenage sweethearts who were married last summer.
Fleury, a former No. 1 overall pick and the Penguins' go-to goalie for the past six postseasons, acknowledged he's in a different place mentally for his seventh crack at the playoffs.
“When you go on the ice, it's the same,” Fleury said. “But when you go home, there's other stuff to worry about. You don't think about the stuff said or the bad goal. You can clear your mind easier. You have something really important at home.
“It's a good feeling.”
The Penguins open the playoffs against the New York Islanders on Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, and their goalie has them feeling good about their chance to reclaim the Cup.
ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM
Fleury is the same netminder whose previous reputation as a big-game goalie was erased over the past three playoffs, including a historically bad loss to Philadelphia last spring.
“He just seems like he's more ready,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said of Fleury. “There's a different feel about him. He's just on top of things.”
Fleury played a pivotal role for the Penguins in their run to the 2008 Cup Final and their title the next year. He produced a 2.20 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in those 37 playoffs games.
He has appeared in only 26 playoff games since — and his 3.12 GAA and .880 save percentage are, fairly he said, viewed by many people outside the organization as the reasons the Penguins have won only one postseason series during that span.
Teammates, with captain Sidney Crosby and defenseman Brooks Orpik at the front, have lined up to defend Fleury, who was worked over for 26 goals in a six-game series loss to Philadelphia last postseason. Awful defensive play — from forwards to defensemen — too often left Fleury needing to make use of all his wow-gosh athleticism against the Flyers, teammates said.
Fleury said — in fact, he adamantly swore — that neither the Flyers nor previous playoff disappointments occupy his thoughts these days.
“Anyway, you can't put last playoffs on ‘Flower,' ” Penguins right winger Pascal Dupuis said. “You just can't. None of us did our jobs. We didn't help him.”
Coach Dan Bylsma doesn't dispute that assessment, but his plan to help Fleury shake off any residue from the Flyers flameout was to push for providing his franchise goalie with an unusual form of support. Within weeks of the Penguins' opening-round loss last postseason, veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun was acquired and signed to a two-year contract.
Another way of looking at that: Fleury, a few weeks before his wedding, learned his backup was a goalie with more NHL wins and shutouts and better overall statistics.
“A lot of goalies, that could have killed them,” Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said. “You could easily second guess yourself, and you can't ever do that as a goalie because staying confident is half the battle.
“Marc-Andre handled it better than anybody could have.”
Fleury and Vokoun, who share an agent, had only a few phone conversations before training camp opened in January after a four-month NHL lockout. They never went to lunch and discussed their roles, never offered unsolicited advice in practices or after games.
Dupuis said he liked the way Penguins coaches managed Fleury, who appeared to wear down after playing in all but four games over the last three months of last regular season.
Fleury played 33 times, won 23 games and recorded a 2.39 GAA and .916 save percentage.
Vokoun played in 20 games, winning 13 and recording a 2.45 GAA and .919 save percentage.
“We just played when we were supposed to, and I think that is why is worked so well,” Vokoun said. “It also helps that you had two veteran goalies.”
READY TO BLOOM AGAIN
Veteran is a word not often applied to Fleury, who's childlike amusement often makes Penguins outsiders forget that he is the club's second-most tenured player and, at 28, the second oldest among the Cup nucleus of Crosby, Orpik, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Veteran goalies benefit from perspective, Vokoun said.
He added that the same is true for new fathers.
“I lived it this year,” said Letang, whose first son, Alexander, was born during the lockout.
“I try to come to the rink earlier so I can spend the rest of the day with my family. Your family makes you forget about everything at the rink.”
Actually, Fleury's teammates don't want him to forget too much.
They still remember their “Flower” blooming in the 2008 and '09 playoffs, and they see signs that this version of Fleury is more like that goalie.
“He was focused, he was ready and he wants it,” Dupuis said. “He did before, but right now, it's all clear in his head.”
The day after Estelle Fleury arrived, Letang spied her father in a private moment.
Marc-Andre Fleury, smiling, looked at Letang, took a deep breath and then simply sat still at his locker stall.
“I know that feeling,” Letang said. “That is why I have a good feeling about him.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib
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