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July 18, 2019
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
After the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, Fleury was written off as a complete fraud and incapable of backstopping the Penguins to a Stanley Cup. Now, following his performances in Games Three and Four, Fleury is once again receiving praise, showing just how fickle popular opinion can be.
The Flower stopped 64 of 68 shots (.941 SV%) in Pittsburgh, and he answered the bell when his team needed him most. Detroit unleashed a fearsome onslaught in the second period of Game Three, but Fleury stood tall, turning aside 14 shots to keep the game tied and give his club a chance to win. If not for Fleury, the Wings light it up in the second and likely trap their way to a 3-0 series lead.
In Game Four, Fleury quelled another Detroit offensive, stopping 18 of 19 shots in the opening period. The clutch goaltending provided the Penguins enough time to rally, and they blew the game open in the second with three goals in less than six minutes.
But Fleury’s critics would point to these Stanley Cup Finals as Exhibit A. He can be lousy one minute and dominant the next. The inconsistency can be maddening, especially when hockey's ultimate prize is up for grabs.
The thing to remember, though, is Fleury is still just 24 years old, which is ridiculously young in goaltending terms. And if one considers Martin Brodeur the gold standard, Fleury compares quite favorably to the all-time NHL wins leader.
Brodeur turned 25 on May 6, 1997. At the time, he had 119 career victories. Fleury has 111, and he won’t turn 25 until November 28. The 25-year-old Brodeur also had a career playoff record of 29-19. Heading into Game Five, Fleury has a career postseason mark of 29-17.
Of course, Brodeur won his first Stanley Cup at the tender age of 23, but playing behind the New Jersey trap was hardly the toughest gig in show business; he faced a paltry 22.7 shots per game that postseason. And Brodeur didn’t return to the Cup Finals until he was 28. Fleury, at 24, already has two Stanley Cup Finals appearances to his credit.
Only two goaltenders in the past 30 years can equal that. Patrick Roy won the Cup as a 20-year-old in 1986 and then lost to the Flames as a 23-year-old in 1989. Grant Fuhr was 21 when the Oilers won their first of back-to-back Cups in 1984.
Over the past 30 years, the only other netminder to win a Cup at a younger age than Fleury is Cam Ward, who hoisted the chalice with the Hurricanes as a 22-year-old. But Ward wasn't even the No. 1 guy at the start of the postseason. Totally different situation. He also needed seven games to beat a No. 8 seed Edmonton squad in the Finals. How do you think Ward and the Canes would have done against the Red Wings?
Chris Osgood won his first Cup when he was 25, and the Wings were defending champs and won that Cup in spite of Osgood, not because of him. He also had the benefit of facing a terrible Washington team in the Finals.
Bill Ranford was 24 in 1989 when the Oilers won, but again, another great team with veteran leadership and a history of winning Cups in front of him.
Other recent Cup-winning netminders and their ages: J.S. Giguere (30), Nikolai Khabibulin (31), Dominik Hasek (37), Ed Belfour (34), Mike Vernon (26, 34), Mike Richter (28), Tom Barrasso (26, 27).
Goaltending is odd in that it's the most important position in hockey yet it's also the one that requires the least athleticism to be good. It's more mental than physical. And one only trains the mind through experience.
Osgood, being the veteran, would seem to have an advantage over his youthful counterpart. Ah, but remember the immortal words of Miyagi:
“To make honey, young bee need young flower, not old prune.”
The Wings have the old prune. The Pens have the young Flower. Let’s make some honey.