So Pittsburgh Penguins: Is it finally time to start believing in you? More specifically, is it finally time to start believing goaltender Marc-André Fleury has at last rediscovered the postseason form that drove the Penguins to the 2008 NHL final and the 2009 Stanley Cup victory?
Fleury’s teammates think so. They were full of praise after his second consecutive shutout against the New York Rangers gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead in their second-round playoff series going into Wednesday night’s Game 4 in New York.
“He was great. He’s been our best player all playoffs long,” said Sidney Crosby, who had a breakthrough himself in Monday’s 2-0 win with his first 2014 post-season goal. “To win in the playoffs, you need solid goaltending. He’s given us a chance every night.”
Well call us crazy, but we want to see more evidence before any declarations are made about Fleury. Once burned, twice shy and all that. Early in the first round, this modest corner of the sporting world posited that Fleury quelled his doubters with a good showing against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But that was before he turned that series into an adventure in the space of about three minutes in Game 4. Some ill-advised stickhandling in the last minute of the third period allowed the Blue Jackets to tie the game, and a whiff on routine wrist shot early in overtime gave Columbus a 4-3 win and tied the series.
Back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs are impressive feats to be sure, but there were enough caveats in them to keep us skeptical. Fleury had the hockey gods with him Monday, as the Rangers hit iron a couple of times, one a truly memorable occasion when a shot by Ranger forward Mats Zuccarello hit the crossbar, bounced to the ice, skittered along the goal line and slipped out of harm’s way.
While I still believe the Penguins will beat the Rangers in this series and advance to the Eastern Conference final for the second consecutive year, that is more about what the Rangers are failing to do than it is about what the Penguins are doing.
What the Rangers are not doing, of course, is scoring. Rick Nash led the playoffs in shots on goal before Tuesday’s game, but the big Ranger forward has yet to put a puck in the net. And unlike Crosby, who dominated play even when he wasn’t scoring, Nash has not been much of a factor.
He has lots of company in this department. The Rangers have only two players among the top 30 in playoff scoring: Brad Richards has seven points in 10 games, which placed him 21st before Tuesday’s games, and the immortal Benoit Pouliot has six points, good for 30th spot. The New York power play is a disgrace, goalless in its last 34 opportunities.
Blown leads were Pittsburgh’s issue in the first round. The Penguins hung on to their 2-0 lead in the third period on Monday, but they needed Fleury’s hot hand and solid play by their defencemen.
“It wasn’t maybe exactly how we wanted to play the third period of hockey,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma admitted Tuesday, adding: “I don’t think one shot and four scoring chances in the third was what we were looking for. But [it was] a real calm and confident group going over the boards and defending and being confident defending. I loved the resolve in our group from the top right on down, jumping over the boards in those situations.”
The Penguins still don’t remind me of the 2013 Boston Bruins, who relentlessly got better in every game after the first round, and swept the Penguins in the conference final.
But there are some crucial differences with this edition of the Penguins. For the first time this season, they have some depth, enough that Bylsma doesn’t have to rely mostly on his top two forward lines and one or two defence pairs. Forward Beau Bennett is healthy and providing good support along with Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc, both of whom were picked up at the NHL trade deadline.
Moreover, Kris Letang and Paul Martin both look back in form after lengthy stays on the injured list, which gives Pittsburgh an elite defence pair.
This doesn’t guarantee a trip to the Stanley Cup final, but it looks promising.