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Drive to the Net: Fleury embracing present while keeping Penguins on track

Fleury has plenty to look back upon, good and bad, and he might not be a Penguin next fall, but he’s choosing to embrace the present.

Marc-André Fleury makes a second-period save Thursday. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Nine years ago, Marc-André Fleury presided over the Penguins’ first Eastern Conference championship of the century, clinched with a cathartic 6-0 defeat of the Flyers at Mellon Arena.

Nine days ago, Fleury was the presumed backup for the start of the first round, until Matt Murray couldn’t make it through Game 1 warmups without aggravating a lower-body injury.

Both moments seemed equally distant Thursday night, when Fleury’s 49 saves culminated his latest rise to prominence and completed the Penguins’ five-game elimination of the Blue Jackets, his first series-clinching win at home since that aforementioned Sunday afternoon in May 2008.

Fleury has plenty to look back upon, both good and bad, and he might not be a Penguin next fall, but he’s choosing to embrace the present. After responding to a couple of so-so games in Columbus, Ohio, with a No. 1 star-worthy performance in a 5-2 win at a jubilant PPG Paints Arena, no one was blaming him for that.

“Just trying to go one game at a time and enjoy it,” Fleury said. “You never know what’s coming for you. We have a great team. We have great fans. It’s a fun place to play so I just try to enjoy it.”

The night sure seemed like a crowd-pleaser early in the second, when the Penguins built a 3-0 lead. About 15 minutes of game time later, though, Fleury had to make this dazzling stop on Jack Johnson to keep his team ahead:

“He was fantastic for us,” Ian Cole said of Fleury, whose .933 save percentage in the series was representative of his overall aptitude. “Enough can’t be said for the way he steps in on a moment’s notice and all series long plays so solid for us. I think he’s great feeling those momentum swings and making the big stop when he needed to.”

The concept of a ‘timely save’ can be refuted — when has there ever been an untimely save? — but the bottom line is that Fleury came through in some particularly opportune times over the past five games.

Most notable among those moments: The Penguins’ shaky first period in Game 1 and the vast majority of their clinching Game 5. In both occasions, Fleury was at the eye of a crease-centered hurricane, maybe not entirely calm but a game-saver nonetheless.

“There were times in the series when they had 10, 15 minutes of really good play and he had to make multiple key saves,” Ron Hainsey said. “He played great in the first 10 minutes of Game 1. That period was not great for us. We could’ve been down two- or three-nothing. He was able to get the job done and away we went.”

Mike Sullivan called Game 5 a microcosm of the series in its wild pendulum swings, but these 60 minutes also represented some of the young Blue Jackets’ strongest hockey of the series.

“Well, we had a lot of chances,” John Tortorella lamented. “We had over 30 chances, which is just insane. We needed to capitalize. We didn’t.”

As per their tendency this series, the Jackets fired pucks from the walls, the points, the corners … however they could make the Penguins turn and look for rebounds off Fleury. Unlike in Games 3 and 4, when he allowed a combined nine goals, Fleury did better absorbing and directing shots, but that wasn’t enough to make for a routine evening considering how hard Columbus was fighting.

Cole said the Penguins were happy to let the Jackets unleash shots from non-scoring areas in this series, reasoning that they could simply get the puck back quicker that way.

“We’d like to limit shots, for sure, but if their game plan is to shoot from anywhere, they’re going to get shots,” Cole said. “As long as we limit those Grade ‘As’ around the front of the net, we should limit their goals.”

It’s a fine theory, but there were times in this series when Fleury seemed marooned in the blue paint. Times like, say, two minutes into Game 5, when Cam Atkinson worked his way open at the lip of the crease:

Or, 30 seconds into the second, when William Karlsson slipped a feed to Josh Anderson:

After the Penguins regained the look of champions early in the third, Fleury denied the shifty Alexander Wennberg on a wraparound, showing that he wasn’t going to roam too far from his net like at times during a mediocre Game 4:

For all the highlight saves Fleury made, though, much of his night was spent craning his neck to see the puck with all the skaters and sticks stationed in front of him.

“I think the biggest thing is to find the puck,” Fleury said. “If I can see it leave the guy’s stick, I can have a better chance of knowing where it’s at and (get) in the right spot.”

“They threw a lot of pucks to the net and they always had somebody around,” Fleury said. “Always somebody trying to poke it.”

Fleury also made frequent mentions of his teammates’ helping him keep the Jackets at bay. He wasn’t just being nice, since Cole, Nick BoninoOlli Määttä and Trevor Daley each chipped in potential goal-saving plays:

(The Blue Jackets’ first goal, scored by Karlsson, went in off Brian Dumoulin‘s stick. That was the third ‘friendly fire’ goal that got behind Fleury over the past two games, so there was some hindrance to go with the help.)

Unlike Fleury’s previous clinching moment in front of the home fans, the Prince of Wales Trophy wasn’t handed out after this one, but if there were a series MVP award to be awarded, Fleury would’ve been the favorite in that home dressing room.

“Not many words to describe how he’s playing right now,” said Scott Wilson, who capped the scoring in the third period. “He’s been a big boost with the way he’s playing. Couldn’t be happier for a good guy like him to shut the door for us.”

Fleury has won over one of his newest teammates, too, not that his reputation didn’t precede him anyway.

“My perception was that he was a great goalie, a Cup-winning goalie,” Hainsey said. “A tremendous person off the ice. But, you know, when ‘Murr’ went down Game 1, you’ve got a guy stepping in who’s done it before. A great goalie, regardless of what happened during last year’s playoffs, you know? I think the guys fed off that. I think we all have confidence he can be the guy.”

But will Fleury remain ‘the guy?’

Murray has yet to take the ice since re-injuring himself, but the Penguins will probably have a week off before stepping back onto game ice for the second round, either in Pittsburgh against the Maple Leafs or in Washington against the Capitals. That could provide enough time for recovery and give the Penguins a tough decision. Also, if we’re talking history, Murray’s .925 save percentage over the past two seasons blows away Fleury’s .916 over that span, even as the elder member of that tandem played noticeably better after the March 1 trade deadline.

As Fleury alluded to above, the future is uncertain. In his case, at least he’s made a statement to Sullivan that he’s still capable of doing the goalie’s most important job — bailing out his teammates — at the most important time of the year.

“I thought we got timely saves from Marc,” Sullivan said. “That’s what helps you overcome the emotion that comes with momentum swings.”

For a goalie who’s won the Stanley Cup with a lunging last-second save, getting through the first round wouldn’t seem to thrill that much. But, consider the circumstances of Fleury’s past year, from sitting out most of a championship playoff run, to seeing Murray sign an extension, to being the subject of rampant trade reports.

Throw in the loudest ‘Fleur-y, Fleur-y’ chants of the year from the latest sellout crowd Uptown and Thursday night was “right up there,” to use the goalie’s own words.

“To be here, at home, in front of our fans, and to be able to get that win … ” Fleury said, trailing off. “Just the support they’ve given me throughout all these years. I still get butterflies and goosebumps when I hear the crowd chanting, so I’m happy that I was able to contribute.”

That might be an understatement, since the 51-shot workload in Fleury’s team-record 57th playoff win was the most voluminous he’s faced in a regulation postseason game.

“I think he gets bored if you only let them have 15 shots,” Cole said. “We were doing it for him, I think!”

“We’d like for him to not have to work that hard,” Sidney Crosby said. “He was the best player tonight.”

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

Penguins vs. Blue Jackets, Game 5, PPG Paints Arena, April 20, 2017. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

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