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Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) makes a save as New York Islanders center Josh Bailey (12) and right wing Kyle Okposo (21), of Switzerland, look on in the first period of Game 4 of their first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey series at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) makes a save as New York Islanders center Josh Bailey (12) and right wing Kyle Okposo (21), of Switzerland, look on in the first period of Game 4 of their first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey series at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (Kathy Willens/AP)

HOCKEY

Marc-André Fleury: A quandary for Pittsburgh, a headache for Canada Add to ...

Three Dog Night had it all wrong.

One is not the loneliest number. It’s 29.

No. 29, also known as Marc-André Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is on the ice at Consol Energy Center. He is skating between Zambonis as they re-surface the ice: crouched over, head bowed, deep in thought that does not require a mind-reader to decipher.

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What the hell has gone wrong?

Fleury is, or at least is supposed to be, the starting goaltender for what has been the strongest NHL team in the Eastern Conference. He is supposed to stop the pucks while Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, and a cast of other hockey stars fire pucks into the opposition nets. He is supposed to backstop the Penguins to the 2013 Stanley Cup prior to taking over the net as Team Canada defends its Olympic gold medal in Sochi next February.

That was the dream, the plan – but recently it has gone off the rails.

Fleury had a good season – 23 wins against only 8 losses – but the 28-year-old franchise goaltender and former No.1 overall draft pick played poorly enough against the upstart New York Islanders that head coach Dan Bylsma was forced to replace him with backup Tomas Vokoun.

Vokoun, a 36-year-old journeyman picked up last summer from the Washington Capitals for a seventh-round draft pick, promptly shut out the Islanders in Game 5 and then won Game 6 in overtime to wrap up the series.

When the Penguins opened Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators, it was again Vokoun in net, dropping the odd puck and leaving endless rebounds, but still good enough to help his team to a 4-1 victory.

After 79 straight playoff starts for Fleury, including a Stanley Cup win in 2009, the No.1 goaltender was no longer No.1. Instead, he was sitting on the end of the bench while Vokoun played and, Wednesday, was skating with the “Black Aces,” other members of the Pittsburgh Penguins also not likely to see action in Friday’s Game 2 of this series.

Though Fleury had been his usual smiling, cheerful self in the dressing room – even if not talking to the media – it was a different case on the ice. As puck after puck got by him in various drills, he angrily shoved his net, cracked his stick on the posts and crossbar and, at times, set off down the ice with a sigh, gliding slowly as he crouched lower and lower, stewing.

There is thinking also in Pittsburgh and it goes like this: at some point, if the Penguins are going to reach their goal of the Stanley Cup final, Fleury is going to have to return to the net and return to form.

If he cannot, summer sports talk shows in Canada are going to luck into a topic of near-endless fascination: Who will be the goaltender in Sochi?

At one point, it was a given that it would again be Roberto Luongo, the Vancouver Winter Games goaltender who has had such an up-and-down career since then with the Canucks. Then it was Carey Price, who became so inconsistent in the latter part of this past season that his play was a critical reason why the Senators are here and Price’s Montreal Canadiens are history.

The recent history of Canadian NHL goaltenders has been curious indeed: the St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliott runs very hot, then runs very cold; the Toronto Maple Leafs James Reimer looks spectacular, looks ordinary; `the Washington Capitals’ Braden Holtby is good, but is he good enough to win a critical game? Other names – Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks, Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers, Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes, Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes – get mentioned but so, too, do their various injuries, inconsistencies and even lack of experience.

Some are even saying that the goaltender Canada should look closely at is 41-year-old Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, the masked greybeard who has been on Olympic rosters since the NHL was first allowed into the Games back in 1998.

Of the eight teams left in the playoffs, there are three American starting goalies (Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, L.A.’s Jonathan Quick), two Finns (Boston’s Tuukka Rask, San Jose’s Antti Niemi), a Swede (New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist), a Czech (Vokoun) and one Canadian (Crawford).

The pressures on goaltenders in critical situations is unlike anything else in the game of hockey. It has perhaps best been compared to another position in another game, as when former Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams said back in the 1950s that, “What pitching is in a short series in baseball, goaltending is in the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

In fact, this comparison comes up short, just as the pressure in the Stanley Cup playoffs comes up short when compared to playing goal for Canada in the Olympics.

No wonder they bend; no wonder they sometimes buckle.

The Pittsburgh Penguins all say the right things. “We play the same no matter who’s in net,” forward Tyler Kennedy said on Wednesday. And several other players repeated versions of the same mantra.

When Fleury was replaced by Vokoun in the previous series, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was quick to come to his defence, saying, “We didn’t do a very good job of helping Marc out.

“We still have a lot of confidence in him. He has a history of bouncing back after a tough game.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly hope so.

And before these playoffs are over, it may be far more than Penguins fans who are hoping to see such a decisive bounce.

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