BY WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Marc-Andre Fleury is doing his best to stay in the present.
Who knows how much longer he’ll play for the Pittsburgh Penguins? The winningest goaltender in franchise history certainly has no clue. Heck, 10 days ago he was the backup to Matt Murray. Now he’s the most important reason the defending Stanley Cup champions are heading to round two after taking care of Columbus in five games.
“I think once you realize you never know what’s coming, you try to enjoy every moment that you have,” Fleury said after Pittsburgh finished off the Blue Jackets with a 5-2 win on Thursday. “We have a great team. We have great fans. It’s a fun place to play. Try to embrace it and enjoy the momentum.”
There’s plenty to go around for the Penguins. Fleury turned aside 49 shots in the clincher, including a first-period barrage that kept the Blue Jackets at bay until his teammates got it going, and another 19 in the third as Columbus tried to keep its season alive.
“He had to make a ton of huge saves,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “They weren’t necessarily routine, either. He was tested a lot. We don’t like to have to make him work that hard. He was our best player tonight.”
That’s the way it usually tends to go for teams who make deep postseason runs. The Penguins took their initial step toward becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to capture back-to-back championships by watching Fleury turn back the clock. He spent most of the winter watching Matt Murray – who stepped in when Fleury went down with a concussion on the eve of the 2016 playoffs and helped the Penguins to the franchise’s fourth Cup – slowly but surely take over his decade-long tenure as Pittsburgh’s top goalie while trying to tune out speculation about his availability in the upcoming expansion draft.
Moments before Game 1 against Columbus, the narrative changed. Murray tweaked a lower-body injury in pregame warmups and all of a sudden Fleury was back in his old spot. While Fleury admits to still getting butterflies occasionally, his steady hand helped the Penguins fend off the young and physical Blue Jackets.
Pittsburgh’s goal before playing either Toronto or Washington in the next round? Making sure Fleury doesn’t have to work nearly as hard. Too often over the final three games against Columbus the Penguins found themselves in the kind of freewheeling up-and-down game that might be fun to watch but doesn’t typically translate into extended stays in the playoffs.
Considering both the Maple Leafs and the Capitals have plenty of firepower – throwing pucks and bodies at the net with little regard for what’s in the way – keeping Fleury’s line of vision as clear as his mind is a must.
“That sense of desperation, especially in front of your net, is crucial and kind of intrinsic to playoff hockey,” Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole said. “We need to make sure we’re doing that, make sure we’re limiting chances around our net front. That’s where the grade A chances are and if we do that I think we’ll be OK.”
When the breakdowns came on Thursday, Fleury was there to clean up the mess. He stopped 181 of the 194 shots he faced in the first round, outplaying Sergei Bobrovsky, who led the league in goals against and save percentage during the regular season only to get lit up by the NHL’s highest-scoring team over the course of five games.
The Penguins have the luxury of a deep and talented forward group that can compensate for the occasional defensive slipup. Four players – Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel – averaged over a point a game against Columbus and Bryan Rust poured in a pair of goals in Game 5.
Pittsburgh, though, would just as fine outplaying opponents than simply trying to outscore them.
“Defense wins championships,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “You’ve got to be good defensively and that’s something we’ll work on but we’ve got some time off here to do that and we’ll be better.”
The Penguins will almost certainly need to be better in front of Fleury whenever the next round begins. While coach Mike Sullivan stressed his team’s best hockey “is head of us” the one area he and the team he leads isn’t worried about is in net.
“When Murray went down before Game 1 you got a guy stepping in who’s done it before, who’s a great goalie, regardless of what happened during last year’s playoffs,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “I think the guys fed off that.”
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