By Matt Loughlin
You can’t clap your hands if you’re wearing heavily-padded leather gloves so hockey players tap their sticks on the ice when they want to show their appreciation for someone.
Considering he was expected to be no more than a spectator in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury deserves a serious round of stick taps from his Penguins teammates as Pitt finds itself one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
Fleury has never quite lived up to his billing as the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. Oh, he’s been good enough alright, backstopping the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship, securing victory for the Pens with a last second save against Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom in a 2-1 victory in Game 7.
But there seems to have been two boneheaded plays for every one standout save made by the man nicknamed, “Flower”.
Like this one while playing for Canada in the gold medal game of the 2004 World Junior Championships which turned out to be the game-winning goal in the United States’ 4-3 victory.
Or this, in the 2012 playoffs against Philadelphia (love that old-time hockey after the goal was scored).
Yes, Pittsburgh won with Fleury in goal but, because of names like Crosby and Malkin, it was often viewed that they won in spite of him.
For his part, Fleury remained an affable, outgoing presence in the Penguins dressing room through all the criticism. Always available to the media, answering all the tough questions and always with a quick smile, Fleury just shrugged it all off.
Near the end of last season, Fleury suffered a concussion that cost him the number one job in goal. Matt Murray, a rising star in the game, took over and led Pittsburgh to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship.
At the start of this season, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan refused to say which of his two goalies was number one, proclaiming instead that he had two goalies in which he had faith. But the fact is that Murray played more, and played better, than Fleury. And when the playoffs began, Murray was firmly in place as the top dog.
Except, Murray injured himself while warming up before Game One of the Penguins opening round series against Columbus. In stepped Fleury and the Penguins haven’t looked back.
They dispatched Columbus in five games and now lead Washington three games to one in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Last night, in the 3-2 win over the Caps that put the team that finished with the best record in the league on the brink of elimination, Fleury stopped 36 of 38 shots and was the best player on the ice for the Pens.
His resume may be lined with some pot holes but he’s fought through it all and now the “Flower” is in bloom again this spring. Stick taps all around.