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(REBECCA COOK)
(REBECCA COOK)

Fleury versus Osgood Add to ...

The starting goaltenders in the Stanley Cup final are opposites in just about every aspect of their profession, from age to style to reputation, but they are the same in that neither Chris Osgood nor Marc-André Fleury are any great shakes in the statistics department except for the one that matters - winning.

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During the regular season, Osgood's struggles with the Detroit Red Wings were so bad he lost his No.1 job to backup Ty Conklin for a time. He finished an underwhelming 45th among NHL goaltenders in save percentage at .887 and 41st in goals-against average at 3.09, numbers usually reserved for players on the worst teams. But the native of Peace River, Alta., finished with a record of 26-9-8.

Fleury, from Sorel, Que., was a little better, although the only major category in which he cracked the top 10 was wins with 35.

When the Stanley Cup final starts tomorrow night in Detroit, though, Osgood and Fleury will be the last two goaltenders standing. And they are tied for first place in the most important category of this year's playoffs at 12 wins each.

This is the second consecutive showdown in the Cup final for them, with Osgood and the Wings handily winning the best-of-seven series in five games a year ago to win his third Stanley Cup ring. However, Osgood, 36, is regarded as a veteran who has had the good fortune to play for a great team for most of his career while Fleury, 24, is considered another of the great young talents on the star-studded Penguins roster.

"With Chris Osgood, if you look at history, when he's played on teams that are not so good [St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders] he's been not so good," said Mitch Korn, the goaltending coach of the Nashville Predators. "But there is something about playing for the Detroit Red Wings, like playing for the New York Yankees, that makes players elevate their games in response to everyone else.

"Osgood has always been very good in certain situations. You get measured on whether you win or lose and he's found a way to win even when his stats have not been great. He seems like a guy who gets it done because he doesn't want to let anybody down."

Korn says Fleury is still learning his position but has shown the same kind of mental toughness as Osgood. He was thrown into the league for a time as a teenager in the 2003-04 season and did not establish himself as the Penguins' top goalie until last season.

"When you look at guys who get to the NHL before they are ready, especially goalies, I relate that to being a child actor," Korn said. "They often have dysfunction later in life because they don't follow the normal path. Guys can get there too early, get sent down and struggle to get back.

"Fleury has battled through all that and, amazingly, has overcome it."

STYLE AND SKILLS

Neither is a straight butterfly goaltender, although both incorporate elements of that game, dropping to their knees and gliding from side-to-side. It's interesting that Osgood adopted some of that style late in his career.

"People talk about the butterfly as a style, but I think of it as a save," Korn said. "[Osgood]added several saves to his game."

The biggest difference between the goaltenders is in their athleticism. Korn considers Osgood's physical skills "average." He compensates with his intelligence and experience.

"I think Osgood is very strong between the ears," Korn said. "He has great mental toughness and a passion for that Red Wing crest. It elevates his game.

"He reads and reacts to things. He is excellent at recognizing the patterns in a game."

But Osgood has some skills that stand out, particularly with his stick. He is a good skater who is quick with his stick around the net, particularly when it comes to reaching back with it after someone thinks he has beaten Osgood with a deke.

Fleury's physical skills are superior and at this point in his career he relies on his athleticism a little too much to get out of jams. But Korn says he made a lot of improvement over last season, when an ankle injury kept Fleury out for six weeks.

"That injury changed his game," Korn said. "Before, he was an overactive goalie and he still is to some degree. He was overactive in challenging [shooters] in his movements and in making saves. As a result, he gave up rebounds.

"When he hurt his ankle, he had to reel in his game. Now he's far more patient and in control."

Fleury is flexible, even for a goaltender, and uses that like Osgood uses his stick to make saves after someone has beaten him with a deke, usually with his catching glove. He also likes to use his stick to poke-check, which means players have to shoot before they get too close to him.

REBOUND CONTROL

Over the years, Osgood learned to control rebounds, but he also has the good fortune to play behind the deepest defence in the league. With Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and company around, there are few loose pucks in front of the net.

The Penguins' defence is not bad in NHL terms but not as good overall as the Red Wings', which makes Fleury's job a little harder when it comes to rebounds. But he is not quite as adept as Osgood in this department.

"He [Fleury]still has a tendency to give up a few more than he would like," Korn said. "But at the end of the day he's far better than he was."

PUCK HANDLING

This is where Osgood has improved the most. Combine that with his defenceman's skill at getting in position to receive the puck and then move it up the ice and this is a formidable weapon.

"His puck-handling has dramatically improved," Korn said. "Plus, his players pick up the puck so well off the wall. And even in the new, non-interference NHL, [the Detroit defencemen]can still get in the way and hold [opposing] players up. That certainly makes it easier to handle the puck."

Osgood is also quick enough around the net to get behind it and stop most of the hard shoot-ins by opposing forwards.

Fleury's overactive nature is still a bit of a problem when it comes to handling the puck. He made a couple of costly giveaways in the playoffs.

But, Korn says, "as long as he keeps the puck on the wall, he's okay."

WEAKNESSES

For someone who is a favourite target of the critics, Osgood does not have a long list of soft spots, according to Korn. One is simply his 5-foot-11, 178-pound frame, which makes it more difficult to handle the traffic around the net.

"In the old days, small goalies were quick and agile while big goalies were slow and cumbersome," Korn said. "Now the bigger goalies have become as skilled as the smaller ones and because it is a game of square-footage [in covering the net] you've seen goalies get bigger."

When it comes to shooters, those who go high on the stick side have more success on Osgood than those who try to beat his catching glove.

Fleury's weakness is his greatest strength, his athleticism. While he can use it to make saves he is not supposed to make, it also leads him to take a few too many risks, such as coming out of his net a little too much to challenge shooters. The flexibility that allows him to cover the sides of the net so well along the ice also opens the five-hole.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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