April 20, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) makes a save against Philadelphia Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell (left) during the third period in game five of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
After struggling through the first three games against the Flyers, many wondered what was wrong with Marc-Andre Fleury. With his performance in the last five periods, it appears the version of the 2009 Stanley Cup champ has returned.
After giving up 20 goals over less than nine periods of the series -- which included an overtime goal in Game 1 and being pulled after yielding six in the first two periods of Game 3 -- the netminder's statistics stood at an awful 6.34 goals-against average and .798 save percentage.
This was something completely unexpected from Fleury, who was only three years removed from being the Stanley Cup-winning goalie in the 2009 Penguins' championship run. Fleury and the Pens defeated the Flyers on the way to that Cup triumph -- the second consecutive postseason they had dispatched their cross-state arch-rivals from the big dance -- and he had the Philadelphia players shaking their heads with some of the stops he had produced.
Things didn't start so well for him in Game 4 on Wednesday night, either, as he yielded three goals on just 11 Flyers' on-target shots in the first period, as Philly took a 3-2 lead in a series-clinching situation. But as Pittsburgh's offense caught fire, Fleury began making some key stops. He stopped all 14 shots over the last two periods, as the Pens scored eight straight goals to take a 10-3 win, avoiding a sweep and forcing a Game 5 back at CONSOL Energy Center Friday night.
With Game 4 being such a blowout, Fleury made his first stand in the series as a contest's difference-maker in Game 5. After allowing two power-play markers on seven shots in the first period, Fleury again shut the Flyers out over the last two periods -- this time stopping 19 shots -- in a 3-2 victory.
One sequence in the second period seemed to turn the contest around, starting with a great stop by the goalie. Skating down the left wing side, Philly's Claude Giroux sent a drop pass to Jaromir Jagr straight away in the slot. The former-Penguin sent a one-timer towards the goal that Fleury got the left pad on. Shortly after that save, Jordan Staal scored to knot the game at 2-all.
The momentum had been switched, and Tyler Kennedy scored three and a half minutes later to give "The Flower" and the Penguins a lead in which would not be surrendered.
The netminder was particularly spectacular during the crunch time of the third period. While Pittsburgh dominated the first six minutes of the stanza, recording all five shots during that time frame, Philadelphia fired 14 shots the rest of the way.
Fleury came up with some absolutely tremendous stops, with the best being two from Danny Briere shots in close on a Philly power play. Briere had two chances to get the puck up high over the goalie in an attempt to tie the game, but Fleury was able to stop both. The second was the tougher of the two, as Briere had time and lifted the shot, only to watch Fleury's left pad kick out before smothering the rebound before Briere could get another whack.
He also came up with an unbelievable stop on Sean Couturier, who was left all alone in the slot. Ex-Pen Maxime Talbot sent a pass from behind the net that Fleury hopped over to avoid the puck banking into the net off of his pads, then got to the butterfly to stop the rookie from the edge of the crease to protect the one-goal lead.
Stopping 24 of 26 shots he faced, Fleury was justifiably named the game's first star for his efforts.
Whereas he had Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Briere, and Joffrey Lupul lifting their eyes towards the rafters with some of the saves he made during the 2008 and 2009 meetings, he had Jakub Voracek, Couturier, Scott Hartnell and Jagr doing the same in Friday night's third period.
With the perfomance, he also put the Flyers on notice that he is back, and placed the pressure squarely on his counterpart in the Philly net, Ilya Bryzgalov, and the rest of his teammates, to win Game 6 at home. They certainly don't want to come back to Pittsburgh for a decisive Game 7, giving the Pens a chance to come back from an 0-3 series deficit -- one that has been accomplished only three times in NHL history. Philly was the last to pull off the feat, in the conference semifinals against the Boston Bruins during a run to the 2010 Finals. Now they're trying to hold off their hated divisional rivals from having them taste the bitter other end of the scenario.
They say the fourth win in a playoff series is always the toughest to gain, and the Penguins are proving that is true. Having staved off elimination for a second straight game and with Fleury looking like the goaltender of old, Pittsburgh moved one step closer to pulling off a miracle.