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July 18, 2019
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Fleury is the main reason the Penguins will be competing for the Stanley Cup Friday night. He turned aside 25 shots in leading the Penguins to a thrilling 2-1 win in Game Six, and he saved his best for last.
With the Pens clinging to a 2-1 lead with less than two minutes to go in regulation, Brooks Orpik tried to swat a bouncing puck into the zone and handed it right to Pavel Datsyuk, who quickly flipped a lead pass to a streaking Dan Cleary. Breakaway.
It was an all too familiar nightmare. Detroit always just hangs around, hangs around, and then scores late to steal games. Pittsburgh had controlled the majority of play, never trailed, and was mere moments away from forcing Game Seven, and it all went out the window with that one mistake.
Fleury, so often ridiculed for being overanxious, demonstrated remarkable poise and resisted the temptation to poke-check. Instead, he waited for Cleary to make the first move and then told him to sit down, flashing the left pad and glove to devour the backhand deke.
”Well, you don't like seeing their team have a breakaway like that,” said Sidney Crosby. “But you know what, I think myself, like a lot of guys, we expected Flower to stop it the way he was playing tonight. You know, he saved us many times, but we have all the confidence in the world. So not going to say I like seeing it. But I had all the confidence in the world that he was going to make that stop.”
Beautiful save. Flawless technique. Complete perfection. And that’s why Fleury is the modern Grant Fuhr. He may be inconsistent. He may give up some soft goals. But he makes big saves at big moments to win games. Ask Jeff Carter. Ask Alexander Ovechkin. Ask your mom. Go ahead. Ask her. She knows.
Fleury was brilliant all night. He set the tone early with a tremendous save on Henrik Zetterberg just 3:25 into the game. Sergei Gonchar stepped up to hit Cleary along the left wall, allowing Pavel Datsyuk to swoop in and create a two-on-one down low. Datsyuk whipped a pass across to Zetterberg, and Fleury read the play like a champ, keeping his skates and punching the shot away with his blocker.
The Penguins dominated the first, outshooting Detroit 12-3, but Zetterberg had the two best chances of the period. He hooked up with Datsyuk again late in the frame, finding himself all alone at the bottom of the right circle, but Fleury was there again, coming across in perfect butterfly position to shut the door.
“He's a guy who has come up big in a lot of big games,” said Dan Bylsma of his young netminder. “And there was a handful of times he came up big in this game. In the first, there wasn't a lot of shots, but there were two by Zetterberg that were big. The breakaway in the third is a pretty big save at a pretty big time for our team. And that's what Marc-Andre has been able to do for us throughout this playoffs. He's shown that repeatedly here in Pittsburgh.”
But perhaps the most telling moment came in the second period when Zetterberg pulled the puck around Hal Gill and rifled a wrist shot off the left post. Fleury, beaten cleanly on the play, heard his best friend chime and sat back in time to smother the puck.
Of course, in last year’s Game Six, Fleury stopped a Zetterberg drive only to sit on the puck and squirt it over the goal line for what proved to be the Cup-winning goal. Not this year. Different Penguin team. Different Fleury. And now, thanks to the Flower, there’s a chance for a different ending.
“It's a great feeling that we've won that one,” said Fleury. “You know, last year was tough, to lose it and to see the other team have the Cup. Now that we're still alive, we have a chance at it to go to Game Seven, it's awesome.”
Detroit had the extra attacker on the ice, and the Pens couldn’t get a clear. Marian Hossa chased down a loose puck out high on right wing and fired a desperation shot on net. Datsyuk corralled the rebound and crossed up Fleury, chipping a backhand pass in front for Johan Franzen instead of shooting it on net. The crafty Russian’s shenanigans caused Fleury to lose his edge and go for a swim.
Scuderi did his best Flower imitation and dropped butterfly, getting a stick on the puck to disrupt Franzen’s first couple chances before eventually making an unconscious kick save with his left skate. Fleury managed to reach in and cover the puck before a huge dog pile ensued.
Aw, so close. That’s a shame.
The Penguins had avoided the box entirely until Evgeni Malkin cross-checked Valtteri Filppula at 9:18 of the third. Another terrible penalty for Malkin. Meaningless cross-checks along the boards in the offensive zone typically don’t get killed. They’re the proverbial bad penalty that cost games. And coming a little more than a minute after Kris Draper cut the lead to 2-1, it seemed the Wings were going to weasel their way back into things.
But not only did the Pens murder Malkin’s penalty, they had to kill a Bill Guerin high-stick about a minute and a half later. Giving the Red Wings four minutes of power-play time isn’t exactly the best way to protect a 2-1 lead in the third period of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pens sure like to make it fun.
Scuderi made another game-saving play during the kills, clearing a loose puck from the crease before Nicklas Lidstrom could pop it home. Aw, so close.
But the weird thing was Crosby only played 17:54. Malkin (20:08), Max Talbot (19:47), and Jordan Staal (19:31) all had more ice time among Penguin forwards. That’s odd.
Crosby didn’t register a point and finished with just one shot. Malkin also went pointless, marking the first time this postseason the Pens won a game when Sid and Geno failed to score.
Osgood was so strong in the first two periods, rumor has it the assembled media had all but decided during the second intermission to give him the Conn Smythe if the Wings managed to pull out the victory. And then the third period happened and Osgood surrendered a wicked soft goal to Tyler Kennedy at the side of the cage. Again, that’s a shame.
“I thought they were better than us, though, at the start of the game, probably, for the first almost 32 minutes,” said Mike Babcock. “They won more races and more battles, had more play, were on top of us more, and they kept us to the outside. I thought we started to build some momentum at the end of the second period, and then obviously we had a good third period.”
To their credit, the Wings, thanks in large part to Osgood, managed to weather the storm over the first half of the game and eventually started to even things out, making a serious push at the end of the second and coming oh so close to netting the tying goal in the third.
Take away the abomination that was Game Five, and this has been a classic series. These are two great teams playing at an extraordinarily high level. If they played 100 times, they’d probably each win 50. But all that matters now is who wins the next one.
”I think each game is an entity of itself,” said Bylsma. “We didn't have a good performance in Game Five, and you can attach whatever emotions or thoughts to it that you want. We came out and we played a much better game tonight. We were, especially the first 30 minutes, I thought we did a great job. Somehow it looks totally different than Game Five.
“So Game Seven is a one-game, winner takes the trophy home. Each team gets their game first. Who can put the guy back on their heels. Who can capitalize on the power play? The turnover situation may get the upper hand in that game. I don't have a ton of experience. I can tell you that we're going to approach it like we just gave ourselves an opportunity that we didn't have before tonight. That's one game for the Stanley Cup.”
And that’s a game the Penguins wouldn’t be playing without Marc-Andre Fleury.