Evgeni Malkin started it a little more than a week ago. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang chimed in Tuesday.
The three stars, arguably in contention for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ team MVP award, pointed to another player as deserving the honour three-quarters of the way through the season: goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Centres Malkin and Crosby, heavily in the chase for the NHL scoring title with 64 points apiece, and Letang, who as of Tuesday led the league’s defencemen with 49 points, agree that Fleury has blossomed in recent seasons. They say he has been the steadying factor in 2014-15 as Pittsburgh vies for the Metropolitan Division title amid injuries and roster changes.
“Flower has been really solid the last few years,” Letang said, using Fleury’s long-time nickname. “He’s just a focused guy who gives us a chance to win every night. Some nights it’s a different guy up front or on the back end (who steps up), but every night we have one goalie, and he’s picking up everybody and carrying us.”
As the Penguins embark on a four-game Western swing that begins Wednesday at Colorado, Fleury (29-13-6) is on the verge of reaching the 30-win mark for the sixth time in as many 82-game seasons since sticking full-time in the NHL in 2008-09. He has career bests with a 2.19 goals-against average and .924 save percentage and leads the league with eight shutouts.
Instinctively, he crouches into deflection mode when told that some of his star teammates consider him the club’s best player this season.
“It’s been a good ride,” Fleury said. “I just keep working out with my goalie coach (Mike Bales), watch video, try to work on little things, try to improve. My teammates have done a great job in front of me.”
In November, he got rewarded with a $23-million, four-year contract extension and a strong verbal endorsement from Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford. Fleury also turned 30 that month.
The job security didn’t slow him.
“You look at what he’s done all season long,” Crosby said. “It’s not easy with the workload he gets and the situation we’ve been put in this year with all the injuries. He’s been our best player consistently.”
To keep it that way, Penguins coach Mike Johnston said Fleury’s workload will be managed down the stretch run. Thomas Greiss, who has started just 13 times, will get a little bigger share of games, particularly with five remaining back-to-back situations.
“That gives Flower the rest time that he needs,” Johnston said.
Rutherford and Johnston, hired last summer, inherited a franchise goalie who has been widely blamed for a lot of Pittsburgh’s playoff disappointments since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. The former club regime attempted to address everything from Fleury’s energy level to confidence, and Fleury spent time with a sports psychologist in summer 2013.
Last week, even with a scheduled day off for the team on Friday, Johnston gave Fleury a day off from practice Thursday. That might have given the goalie a mental break, but he hardly kicked back with his feet up.
“I spent some time at home. Went to Home Depot. Got some groceries. Cleaned up a little bit,” Fleury said. “Played with my daughter, had fun with her. I went to Gymboree with her.”
Estelle, who is nearly two, inherited her father’s never-sit-still attack on life, and Fleury has said he gets a fair workout chasing the pucks that she shoots. Playtime away from the rink will increase for Fleury before it subsides. His wife, Veronique, is expecting their second daughter in August.
Still, Fleury’s maturity in net has stemmed at least in part from being calmer, relying less on making wild acrobatic saves and more on strong positional and steady post play, rebound control and an ability to shake off the frustration of giving up an occasional goal.
Crosby doesn’t expect anything less when the playoffs arrive.
“I don’t see that being anything major with him.” Crosby said. “He’s been playing great for us.”