Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins protects the net against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 12, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Marc-Andre Fleury know a lot about playoff struggles. When the pressure ramps up and the crowds swell in the postseason, both goalies have sometimes floundered.
Only Bobrovsky was reintroduced to that feeling Wednesday. Plugged in as the last-minute goalie after Matt Murray was injured in warmups, Fleury was strong. The Penguins former longtime starter only allowed one goal and looked stout throughout, while Bobrovsky let in three goals in a 3-1 playoff-opening win for the Penguins over the Blue Jackets.
It was a changing of roles for the two. Bobrovsky, with his league leading goals against and save percentage, has had a career season. He’s the likely Vezina trophy winner, and one of the biggest reasons why Columbus won 50 games this season.
Meanwhile, Fleury had reached one of the lowest points of his career. Unseated as the starting goalie by Murray after occupying that role for 10-plus years, Fleury allowed over three goals a game. So when Fleury was announced as the starter shortly before the game, it would’ve made sense for the team to panic. The feeling among the players and the coaches, though, was anything but that.
“We’ve seen everything, we’ve got great leadership in here and (Fleury) obviously is one of the best goalies in the league,” Nick Bonino said. “I don’t think he needs much time to know that he’s playing.”
That lack of panic, no matter the circumstances, is a mentality that serves a team well in the playoffs. It’s a mentality that Fleury perhaps has wrestled with in past postseasons. Pressed with minimal notice that he would be starting, Fleury didn’t have much time to think about that, especially when the Blue Jackets started inundating him with shots early.
Surviving a first period rush of 16 shots, while stopping some quality scoring chances in the process, got Fleury into a groove that he never really got out of, outside of a third period goal by Matt Calvert
“Keeping the score 0-0, that’s a good feeling and you gain a little confidence from it and I felt alright after it,” Fleury said.
While Fleury was tested early, Bobrovsky relaxed. He faced just three shots on goal and was never really made uncomfortable in the first period. That all changed in the second period. A wrist shot by Bryan Rust opened the floodgates, at least for that period. Phil Kessel sniped one past him not too long after Rust’s score, and Bonino added another off a rebound from Patric Hornqvist.
Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal behind Sergei Bobrovsky #72 and Seth Jones #3 of the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 12, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Faced with trying to score against an elite goalie, they beat Bobrovsky in ways they’ll likely need to all series, with high percentage shots in close and skilled ones like Kessel’s.
“Any good goalie you need to get traffic. I think my goal is a result of a really good rebound shot from (Hornqvist) there. Phil, I don’t know how many goalies are saving that, that was a great shot. Same with (Rust) it was in tight,” Bonino said.
The goals that Bobrovsky let up weren’t bad ones by any stretch, but what they were were confidence breakers. Against a goalie as good as Bobrovsky has been this season, breaking his spirit a bit and not letting him get into a zone is important.
“We know he’s a great goalie,” Bonino said. “We know when he gets hot he makes a lot of saves and we were able to keep him on his toes tonight.”
When or if Murray will return this series is still unknown. But as long as Bobrovsky plays more like his old playoff self, and Fleury does the inverse, that shouldn't matter.