By Rob Rossi
Some things just feel right. Take postseason baseball at PNC Park. Think of January football at Heinz Field. Look at the Penguins, wearing a yellow that only Pittsburghers could consider “gold,” playing hockey against those orange Flyers from the less-friendly side of our Commonwealth.
Actually, look at the goalie guarding the home club's cage on Wednesday night. Wouldn't make sense to see somebody else between the pipes for a home game against the Flyers, right?
Well, Marc-Andre Fleury isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
“He's been and he will be in the future a key member of this team,” Jim Rutherford said Tuesday while taking in a Penguins practice at Consol Energy Center.
“As long as I'm the general manager, Marc-Andre Fleury will be our goalie.”
That is the best thing anybody associated with the Penguins has said in a long, long time. Publicly committing to Fleury is a franchise-settling move that should convince any remaining skeptics that Rutherford has a good feel for the present and future.
Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the Penguins. However, an affable, charming French Canadian goalie was here first, and the Penguins are more than ever Fleury's club.
Veterans told first-year coach Mike Johnston as much this past summer. They reiterated the same thing to me over the past few days.
“He calms us down on the ice,” Crosby said. “For a guy who isn't really that way off the ice — like, he can't even sit still most times — you notice right away that he's calm in the net. That's how he leads for us.”
Teams lacking great leadership and good goaltending don't win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins won't win it again without Fleury, and they need his intangibles now more than ever.
Brooks Orpik was the conscience of this team, but he is playing for the Capitals. That leaves Fleury as the longest-tenured Penguin, and if not their conscience, surely is their soul.
No Penguin is funnier, friendlier or more respected, Malkin said.
Fleury, who is in the final year of a contract that counts $5 million against the salary cap, will turn 30 on Nov. 28. It is not inconceivable that parameters for his next deal could be in place by that big birthday. His agent will be in Pittsburgh in a few weeks, and nobody expects a contentious negotiation on a likely long-term deal.
“What Jim is expressing publicly is exactly what he's expressed privately to Marc and myself,” agent Allan Walsh said. “He expressed that to us when he had just taken over as the GM.”
That was June 6, which feels like a lifetime ago, but it was only two weeks after the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead in a second-round playoff loss to the Rangers. That defeat was tough on everybody but especially for Crosby, who believed Fleury was performing at a level similar to when the Cup came back to Pittsburgh in 2009. (Fleury's .915 save percentage last postseason was the second-best mark of his career, better than during the Cup run.)
Former No. 1 overall picks and forever friends, Crosby and Fleury need one another perhaps unlike any teammates in the NHL.
Without greatness from his goalie in the postseason, Crosby might never again get his hands on the Cup. Winning it just once will detract from anything he accomplishes and Crosby, while still only 27, already has accomplished more than most of the all-time greats.
Without another conquering playoff from his captain, Fleury may never get the second championship he will need to cement a potential Hall-of-Fame legacy. He needs only nine wins to become the fourth goalie to notch win No. 300 in the year in which he turns 30. He is on pace to reach 400 wins by the time he turns 33, a feat accomplished only by Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy (Fleury's boyhood idols).
Given what he knows, Crosby does not doubt Fleury may crave the Cup more.
They met at a Hockey Canada practice for the World Junior Championship in December 2003. Crosby was 16. Fleury was 19, the most recent first overall pick, and had already played for the Penguins. They were relative strangers, Crosby said.
“Well, I knew he was the first pick,” Crosby said, smiling.
After that practice, Crosby shot pucks into an empty net as Fleury huddled with coaches. Crosby sauced a softie toward the cage.
“All of a sudden, ‘Flower' took, like, five shuffle steps, dove and swatted it away,” Crosby said. “I was like, ‘He really doesn't like getting scored on.' ”
That is especially true against the Flyers, who always will be Crosby's nemesis, just as Fleury will continue to be the soul to his heartbeat for the Penguins.
“I'm happy to hear that,” Crosby said of Rutherford's commitment to keeping Fleury. “When you think of the Penguins' goalie, you think of ‘Flower.' It feels right.”
Some things just do.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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