ON FLEURY’S RETURN PERFORMANCE VS ISLANDERS
Sure. The Penguins could’ve made it easier on Marc Andre Fleury Saturday night.
A lot easier.
Playing in his first game since December 14th thanks to a concussion, the goaltender had to face 40 shots. He stopped 38 of them and the Penguins beat the Islanders at Consol Energy Center 5-2.
“That first period felt pretty quick. From watching on TV or up in the stands. It looks pretty slow,” said Fleury with his trademark giggle. “Then when you get in traffic with people around you it gets quicker.”
But Fleury was plenty quick between the pipes himself. Especially on a save with 2.7 seconds left in the first period, stopping a wide open Nikolai Kulemin. That allowed the score to remain 2-0 Pittsburgh going into the first intermission.
“That one felt good. It kept the score 2-0. And I felt it was a key save for the first period. It was nice,” grinned Fleury.
And while his teammates allowed their netminder to be tested early by yielding 12 shots in the first twenty minutes, they also uncorked 20 of their own against Islander goalie Thomas Greiss. And drawing two penalties also helped as the Penguins executed two power plays which kept the puck in New York’s end quite a bit and provided multiple scoring chances, including a Sidney Crosby goal on the second opportunity.
“I thought for sure that helped Flower in that circumstance. Especially with it being his first game back. I thought the power play gave us momentum,” said head coach Mike Sullivan after the game.
Defenseman Kris Letang knows all too well of the concerns Fleury brought up about the pace of play upon a return for injury. He’s certainly had to play through those situations enough during his career. And he also pointed to the importance of keeping the opposing goalie busy while Fleury found his sea legs.
“We obviously wanted him to come back in a game where he feels comfortable. We didn’t want him to be the one making 20 saves right off the bat. I think it was a great performance in the first,” praised the blue liner.
And as Fleury said himself, aside from Kulemin’s shot late in the first, and perhaps another quality chance from perpetual Penguin pest Kyle Okposo in the 3rd, most of Fleury’s saves came from the perimeter and off battles in front he could track. Despite the Islanders having a 68-48 shot attempt advantage in 5-on-5 situations and a 36-28 advantage in even-strength scoring chances, the Penguins held the Islanders to 12 high danger scoring chances.
A sign of how Mike Sullivan wants the his hockey club to defend, Pittsburgh blocked seventeen shots vs the Islanders and have 34 blocked shots over their last two games.
Fleury’s return wasn’t the only big story Saturday night. Maybe the bigger return was that of the collective star players as the Penguins head into a home and home series with the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. Yes, the goalie’s comeback was a headline. But seeing the likes of Crosby (2G), Letang (3 ast), Evgeni Malkin (3 ast), and Phil Kessel (1G) all getting on the score sheet was also huge. They had just done so the night before in Detroit as well.
So the stars are all playing healthy. They are playing like themselves. And the goalie’s excellent performance in the first half of the year doesn’t seem to have been rusted over by injury. Maybe turning the calendar away from 2015 and onto 2016 is something more than a metaphor. Maybe it has helped this season after all.
TONIGHT’S GOALTENDING MATCHUP
PIT Marc Andre Fleury (14-10-2, 2.28 GAA, .927 SV%, 2 SO) vs CHI Corey Crawford (20-10-2, 2.23 GAA, .925 SV%, 6 SO)