Marc-Andre Fleury has emerged as a star goalie in the National Hockey League. To many critics, this statement would have never seemed possible.
When he was drafted first overall in the 2003 Entry Draft, many predicted that Fleury would be an average goalie in the NHL. And for the first few years, his play proved the critics right. He could be downright spectacular one night, brutally awful the next. The biggest worry was consistency; a flashy glove save could be followed by a harmless long shot that found the back of the net. There was no doubt the talent was there; the big questions surrounded his mental game.
I was one of the Penguin fans calling for an upgrade in goal. Like many, I was frustrated by the sheer amount of talent not matching the on-ice performance. Fleury seemed destined to join Rick DiPietro as a goalie picked first overall, and never living up to their billing. Let’s face it, Islander friends, DiPietro has fallen victim to the injury plague, and may never finish an entire season healthy.
Fleury came into the NHL with both high hopes and many questions. His performances in Cape Breton were magical. But there was also the mental lapse in the World Juniors, banking the winning goal in off his own defenseman in an attempt to clear the puck. With players such as Dion Phaneuf and Eric Staal available, the Pens raised a lot of eyebrows with the Fleury selection in 2003. The years that followed only raised more questions, as his stats were among the worst in the NHL. In his defense, playing for the worst team in the NHL didn’t do much to help him.
Now, I’m happy to see that I was wrong about Marc-Andre Fleury. I don’t know what happened. He went down with an injury in 2007-08, and when he returned, he sported a new set of white pads and displayed a level of play I had never seen. He took the Pens to the 2008 Finals, and even there, the questions lingered.
The Red Wings defeated the Penguins in six games, and in the four losses, Fleury allowed at least one soft goal a game. Questions still ran rampant about Fleury’s ability to win the big game. Could he return the Pens to the Finals?
In 2009, he did indeed lead the Penguins to the Finals again. And again, they faced the Red Wings. And again, the Wings won the first two games. History seemed destined to repeat itself, until Fleury and the rest of the Pens showed something they hadn’t shown in the previous Finals…mental fortitude.
They went on to defeat the Wings in seven games, with Fleury holding the fort during a last minute rush by the Red Wings. He made a last second save on Nicklas Lidstrom that preserved the win, and Fleury…the goalie whom the critics said could never win the big game, was a Stanley Cup champion.
Fleury has averaged 30 wins a season in the last few years, and has been a huge part of the Penguins rising to the upper echelon of the NHL. If anyone wants to doubt the value of Marc-Andre Fleury these days, they are not looking at the game through the right eyes.
And happily, he has made a believer out of me. I can admit when I’m wrong.