By Rob Rossi
Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, 8:51 p.m.
October 31: Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves) recorded his 40th career shutout against the Toronto Maple Leafs. John E. Sokolowski, USA TODAY Sports
The Penguins couldn't score. Nor could they win. So, when they finally did score a victory, it was predictable that the contribution from a certain somebody went overlooked.
Being overlooked goes with the job of making saves for the Penguins.
Been that way for almost 50 years. Been that way during the best of those years.
It wasn't that way about a year ago. And if general manager Jim Rutherford hadn't determined back then that Marc-Andre Fleury was his goalie for the future, the Penguins' chances this season would look quite bleak.
Right now, Sidney Crosby isn't the best hockey player in the world. And the NHL's best 1-2 punch is not Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Plus, Kris Letang isn't playing like a top-tier defenseman. And Phil Kessel isn't on a pace to score 50 goals.
Yet, somehow the Penguins aren't buried in the Eastern Conference.
That's because their “Flower” has bloomed into a rarity among goaltenders to play for a team known for goals scored rather than saves made.
For a couple of years now, Fleury has been the Penguins' best player. In fact, through the first month, he's been the MVP of the NHL season.
Playing goal for the Penguins isn't about timely saves. Not now.
All the saves have been timely, and Fleury spent October saving almost every shot. Among goaltenders with at least 10 starts before Tuesday, his save percentage was No. 1 — and by a big margin. Only Vancouver's Ryan Miller had stopped at least 92 percent of his shots faced.
Fleury was at 94.2 percent.
But it's not even Fleury's most impressive number. Nor is the paltry total of goals he has allowed, 17.
It is the number is 292, and it represents the shots surrendered by the Penguins in Fleury's 10 starts. That equates to a 29.2 per-game average.
Thirteen teams have averaged better.
So much for the theory the Penguins have become a great defensive hockey club. And don't buy that line about the Penguins following a plan that calls for trading offense for defense.
Never forget whose statue is outside Consol Energy Center.
Never believe, for even a second, that Mario Lemieux is happy his Penguins are averaging 2.18 goals. That's down from 2.65 last season, which is down from 2.95 the season before.
If you're not sure whether these Penguins were built to score, consider that 57 percent of their salary-cap space is allotted to seven forwards.
Heck yeah, they're built to score.
They just aren't scoring. They haven't scored much for all but two-and-a-half of the months Mike Johnston has been coaching games. Crosby, fifth all-time in points per game, has gone without a point 38 times since Johnston stepped behind the bench.
When it's considered breaking news that Crosby records an assist, something is wrong. When the most interviewed athlete in Pittsburgh history is shutting out the local media after games (What, you haven't noticed the captain isn't speaking?), something is very wrong.
Fortunately, Fleury has been very right.
So was Rutherford early last season when he made it a priority to lock Fleury into a long-term third contract. That move stands out, even among some other good ones by the Penguins' veteran general manager.
While with Carolina, Rutherford admired Fleury from afar. A few days into his first training camp with the Penguins, Rutherford noticed something he described as “generally unique for goaltenders.”
Keep in mind that Rutherford was an NHL goaltender. As a player or GM, his dressing rooms didn't resemble the one he presumed belonged to Crosby or Malkin.
“Fleury's personality in the room is something that, truthfully, I didn't realize how important that was for this group,” Rutherford said.
“He's crucial. You don't always ask or expect your goaltender to be a leader like Fleury is here, but he's certainly the positive influence for this group.”
That statement made me think back to the night of the Penguins' first win after starting their season 0-3. The 2-0 victory over Ottawa marked Fleury's 16th shutout over the past three seasons. (He since has logged No. 17.) As Malkin held court with the media after that game, I approached Fleury with a question dripping with sarcasm, much like I have done over the years.
Bet you'd like to play against your offense right now?
I expected that bright, wide grin he had flashed so often. Fleury never flashed it.
“They've scored a lot for me over the years, Rob,” he said. “It's my turn to stop pucks.”
I started looking at Fleury differently that night. Everybody should take a good look.
The Flower has become a rock.
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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