by: Josh Yohe, TribLIVE Updated:
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Penguins owner Mario Lemieux once again visited goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the locker room.
This time, it was merely to offer congratulations.
Five days after Fleury's late implosion prompted Lemieux to console him at Nationwide Arena, the goaltender won his first playoff series in four years thanks to a 4-3 victory in Game 6 of the Penguins' first-round series against the Blue Jackets.
“He was the better goaltender in this series,” left wing Jussi Jokinen said. “And we needed him to be.”
The Penguins committed a number of gaffes in the final 10 minutes, nearly blowing a four-goal lead. Fleury, who spent time last summer with a sports psychologist at the request of the Penguins organization, was the most mentally sound player on the ice during that stretch.
“He stayed calm,” left wing Tanner Glass said. “We have so much confidence in him.”
Fleury made two sparkling saves on defenseman Jack Johnson and forward Matt Calvert during the Blue Jackets' furious rally.
“He's been really good,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I mean, really good. Could he have made more saves? Sure. But a lot more could have gone in, too. We were back on our heels. We gave Calvert a breakaway. He was just great. He doesn't panic. Nothing seems to rattle him.”
Few were making such comments about Fleury a year ago.
But this is clearly a different goaltender.
He allowed only eight even-strength goals in the series, with most of Columbus' offense coming as a result of special teams breakdowns.
His new goaltender coach, Mike Bales, wasn't surprised by Fleury's terrific performance during the past two games of the series. Game 4 ended in disturbing fashion for Fleury — his now infamous jaunt behind the net and subsequent whiff of forward Nick Foligno's shot in overtime provoked many in the hockey world to once again question his playoff acumen — but clearly didn't bury him.
Rather, Fleury responded by stopping 47 of 51 shots in Games 5 and 6.
“I wasn't worried about it,” Bales said of the Game 4 blunder. “That mishap — that was something that could have set a lot of guys back. But not Marc. Marc responded.”
Bales and Fleury didn't have any inspirational conversations following Game 4. Instead, the coach wanted to simply keep things as normal as possible, feeling confidence that the work they've done together all season was strong enough to overcome any playoff demons that may have erupted last week.
“We never change our approach whether a goalie had a good game or a bad game,” Bales said. “I truly have 100 percent confidence in him. I've gotten to know him very well. I've gotten to see how he's responding to things. I wouldn't have expected anything else than what we saw tonight.”
Fleury has finished each of his past four postseasons with a save percentage under .900. Despite his team playing stretches against Columbus that could hardly be described as responsible hockey — “Those are our mistakes, and he's cleaning them up,” Niskanen said — Fleury was statistically solid if unspectacular against the Blue Jackets, finishing with a .908 save percentage.
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)