Last night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens wasn’t just important for Marc-Andre Fleury because he was up against his home-town team; the contest also marked Fleury’s 20th straight appearance in net for the Penguins– the longest such streak of his NHL career. While the game wasn’t one of the Flower’s best performances, the oft-grinning goalie has also been “oft-winning,” racking up 24 wins in 40 games played. Not much has changed from last season; MAF is incredibly consistent from night-to-night, and is considered by many experts as one of the NHL’s “elite” goaltenders. Perhaps the biggest development for Fleury this season has been the increased workload.
Through 47 games Marc-Andre Fleury has made 40 appearances, and is on pace to amass 70 games played for the first time in his career. Goaltenders who have the ability, physical conditioning, and most importantly confidence to start 70+ games in an NHL season are certainly a rare breed. Brodeur, Hasek, Belfour, Kiprusoff, Rinne, Lundqvist. These are just some of the names that come to mind when one thinks about goaltenders who have earned the “workhorse” tag. But could Marc-Andre Fleury really be the next goaltender in this exclusive fraternity of NHL-ers? I believe Fleury possesses a few key assets that make the answer to that question a resounding yes. Fleury has the experience, the skill, and the supreme confidence to become a 70+ gamer in the NHL.
Since the 2006-07 season, Marc-Andre Fleury has played in no less than 62 games in a season [does not include 2007-08 season, in which Fleury missed 3 months with a high-ankle sprain], so there’s no question MAF has the game experience to be a workhorse goaltender. In addition to his 5+ seasons as the Penguins unquestioned starter, Fleury also adds the resume of a playoff-veteran and Stanley Cup champion. Though he has consistently proven his worth to the club, there is still a small – yet loud – contingent among the Penguins fanbase who seem to forget just how crucial Marc-Andre was to the 2008-09 playoff run. Despite the misguided hate, Fleury has already gained all the valuable experience required of any good workhorse goalie.
MAF also boasts the elite skill that warrants a club to start a netminder in 70+ times per season. Even early in his career Fleury was a very high-skill goaltender, but there were questions about his technique and style of play. More recently – especially beginning with his outstanding play last season – Fleury has shored up the inefficiencies in his game and truly established himself as one of the most talented goaltenders in the NHL. Following career-best marks in GAA and SV% last season [2.32, .918], Fleury has been very strong this season while posting 24 wins, a 2.24 GAA and .914 SV% in 40 GP – on pace for his second career 40-win season.
The final puzzle-piece to Fleury’s emergence as the NHL’s next workhorse is the supreme confidence he exudes regardless of the situation. His most recent effort against the Canadiens is a perfect example; after being shelled for 4 goals early in the game, Fleury maintained his swagger – as Bob Errey would most definitely say – and was especially brilliant in the shoot-out to help lead the Penguins to a 5-4 victory. That type of confidence can’t be taught, it has to be built through years of big-game experiences and highlight-reel performances. When MAF is in the cage, he gives the Penguins a chance to win every game and overcome every situation.
Ultimately Fleury has all the necessary tools to become a workhorse goaltender in the NHL, and with the nightmarish conga-line of injuries repeating this season he will be heavily relied upon to help the team secure a playoff berth. In order to reach 70 games played Fleury will have to play 30 of the remaining 35 games. The Penguins’ position in the standings will largely dictate how often Fleury plays down the stretch, but we can be sure that if things get dicey Bylsma will be forced to run MAF ragged. So many things can happen between now and April; but if Marc-Andre Fleury can manage to start 6 out of every 7 games for the rest of the season, we might just have visions of the Flower the next time we think about the NHL’s workhorses.