PITTSBURGH — Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t one for introspection. It’s not that the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender doesn’t think about where he ranks among the top players at his profession; it’s that he really doesn’t care.
Asked if his exploits tend to get overlooked because of the stars that play in front of him and he offered little more than a small smile and a shrug of his lean shoulders.
“I don’t know,” Fleury said in his melodic French Canadian accent. “I don’t really look at it this way. I’m not looking for any approval or pat on the back. I want to go win and that’s what matters. I want my teammates to respect me and be confident in me and bottom line, just go win.”
No one has been better at it in team history than the 27-year-old with the long black hair and the nickname — “Flower” — that hardly inspires fear or intimidation in opponents.
“He’s a goofball,” forward Pascal Dupuis said.
One that’s pretty good at stopping the puck.
Fleury tied Tom Barrasso’s franchise record for career shutouts on Tuesday when he stopped all 27 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers, the 22nd time in his career he’s held an opponent scoreless. He outdueled New York’s unflappable Henrik Lundqvist in the process, playing so well Rangers coach John Tortorella felt compelled to remind reporters “their guy is good, too” while explaining a rare misstep by the Eastern Conference’s best team.
There’s a very real chance Fleury could surpass Barrasso’s team mark for career wins (226) too, sometime before the end of the season. And he’ll likely do it in fewer games, though his victory total is helped a bit by the advent of shootouts that effectively put an end to ties.
“I play on good teams,” Fleury said.
Fleury arrived in Pittsburgh after being selected with the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the cornerstone of one of the most successful rebuilding projects in league history.
Of course, it didn’t feel that way at the time. He went a combined 17-41-8 during his first two seasons — with a year in the AHL sandwiched in between — while playing for one of the worst teams in hockey.
“I was too young to know what was really going on,” Fleury said with a laugh. “That probably helped.”
The addition of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in successive drafts helped, too. Fleury went from playing in half-empty buildings as a rookie to getting a pretty good seat to one of the hottest shows around.
The star wattage can be so high, Fleury’s contributions sometimes get lost in the shadow. Yet he ranked in the top 10 in wins in the last five seasons and is well on his way to making it six straight. His 31 victories heading into Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay are third in the league behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard.
Despite all those wins and a 2009 Stanley Cup run in which he was lights out, Fleury has made just one All-Star game during his eight seasons. While defenseman Brooks Orpik points out Fleury earned a spot on Canada’s gold-medal winning team in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Fleury is quick to mention he didn’t play a minute during the tournament.
It’s typical Fleury. Those bumpy early years taught him not to get caught up by slights, real or perceived. Sure, he didn’t play in Vancouver, but he still snared a gold medal. There are bigger problems to have, right?
“Maybe I’ll get another chance,” he said. “If I don’t, I have a gold medal, right?”
He’s got bigger concerns at the moment, namely trying to win his second Stanley Cup. The Penguins have been scuffling in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings for the last two months, but there’s a sense they’re rounding into form even without Crosby, who remains sidelined indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms.
Even without Crosby, the Penguins are a legitimate threat to make a run this spring. Malkin is playing at an MVP-like level, forward James Neal is having a career year and Fleury continues to get better.
His save percentage (.911) is pedestrian compared to the league leaders, yet it’s above his career average (.909) and because of Pittsburgh’s free-flowing system, he’s not always put in the most advantageous position when opponents rush in.
It’s a small price to pay while playing on a team as loaded as the Penguins when they’re at full strength. He knows he won’t stop every puck.
Of course, that lesson took awhile to learn.
“He gets emotional at times because he’s so competitive,” Orpik said. “I’ve seen him smash a lot of sticks and break a lot of things. But I think the key for him is it’s really short term.”
Fleury isn’t one to brood, though he still takes it personally when he loses a shootout in practice, turning a stick into kindling last month after getting beat on four straight shots. Ten minutes later, he was cutting it up in the dressing room, making “Zoolander” jokes when talking about the face Crosby makes after scoring a goal. “Zoolander” is a 2001 comedy starring Ben Stiller.
That’s just Flower being Flower, a player coach Dan Bylsma calls as important to Pittsburgh’s success as any netminder in the league.
“Maybe our team has not counted on him over the past eight years or seven years like some other goalies have,” Bylsma said. “But this guy has been a huge factor for this team, gone on huge runs when the team needed him.”