Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Flower Blooming...

Its been a while since I've blogged, and even longer since I could fully absorb the Pens season from after New Years. Boy, it seems I missed the best story for the Pens - long-term.
Its so easy to focus on the major injury woes as a negative and the WBS Baby Pens call-ups as such a positive that I lost sight of how great of a season Marc-Andre Fleury is having in net. In fact, it never really struck me until Mark Madden pointed it out on his 105.9 D.J. Blog today. He makes an ironclad argument for "Flower" as NHL Most Valuable Player (MVP).
I recall Sunday afternoon during the Player Awards Ceremony thinking..."Pens MVP? Ok? Are they going to have Sid down there on the ice in a suit to get the award?". When I heard Fleury, I kind of grimaced and thought..."I guess" as I imagined softies floating past him in October. Well...
Since November 12: 35-15-5...928 save percentage, 2.09 goals against; just staggering.
I have recently been thinking, as I have actually been processing the season, "wow, this team can lock it down on defense. They can beat anyone with their commitment to defense and clutch players. With a healthy Sid they can demolish anyone in a 7-game series".
Flower is the main reason this has been on my mind, although I didn't know it until today. I previously thought it is the emergence of our defense (exactly how did Zybaynek Michalek not win Defensive Player of the Year award on this team?). He has been lights out, essentially eliminating other team's top forward (Ovechkin included), Letang has a one-of-kind skill set in the League right now, Orpik is business as usual. Martin is so complete as a player. In other words, I'd take our top 4 Defenseman over anyone this year - any team - Chicago's Top 4, Boston's Top 4, Philly's top 4...I could go on.
But out of all of these guys on Defense...Fleury has the highest ceiling; he was the #1 pick overall in the draft, typically ordained for Franchise Saviors like Lemieux or Crosby. I can still remember sitting in Clarion in 2003 watching this scrawny 18-year old kid with BRIGHT ASS pads thinking to myself that he was being absolutely thrown to the wolves by one of the top 10 worst NHL teams of all time. Then he went out opening night and made 46 saves in a terrible 3-0 loss that could have been 8-0 easy. His talent blew me away. Think about it; I am citing a game from 7 years ago that I'd rather forget, believe me. It looks like the Flower is finally in full bloom...it just took me until spring to realize it.
To contextualize it further. I glanced back at the Pens best goaltending seasons in team history (goaliesarchive.com). Their inaugural season of expansion, 1967-68, Two goalies allowed 2.92 goals per game, which is unreal actually?!?! The early 90's had what appeared to be awful regular season goaltending, even in the astounding 1992-93 regular season in which the Pens handily won the President's Trophy for top record. In the heart of the dead puck era, the 1997-98 Pens, with Tom Barrasso in the "fully receded hairline/peak Masshole arrogance" stage of his career, Ken Wregget, and Peter Skudra (?) all playing at least 15 games allowed only 2.25 goals a game. Barrasso (63 games - 31 wins and a .922 save %) and Skudra (.925 save %) standing out. Barrasso, Skudra, Tugnutt, and J.S. Aubin (!) had a .900 save % combined in 1999-00. Other than that...not a single goaltending season with a .900% or better save percentage or a cumulative goals against better than 2.25 GAA (Barrasso did have a 2.07 GAA in 1997-98).
That all changed when Fleury came in as a 21-year old in 2006 for his second real season as an NHL starter. Every season since then has had an above .900 save %. Of course, defense matters in this equation, but this is a great indicator that Flower is already the best goalie in franchise history - even if he trails Barrasso in Stanley Cups 2-to-1. This surprises me as I write it. I guess we've been so blessed (and maybe blinded?) as Pens fans to have a century's worth of offensive stars in 25 years.
I felt a bizarre gravity to the scoreless draw between Fleury and Brodeur the other night. It seems like Flower bested Marty in the shootout. I know, hokey to say that over a "skills competition". But there was something to it, he just took the French-Canadian goaltending title belt from him in spirit. Of course, Brodeur is past his prime and Luongo is thought to be "the #1 guy" right now...but its never felt to me as if he took it from him directly; lets not forget it took Brodeur melting down in Vancouver for Luongo to even sniff the crease. Team Canada also seemed to win in spite of him; he didn't totally dominate.
With five .900 + save percentage seasons already, a Stanley Cup ring, and at age 26, it seems like Fleury has jumped to conversation from "will he be really good enough for us to win more cups" to "are we watching an NHL Hall-of-Fame Goaltender for the first time as Pens fans?". Its a legit question to ponder. I think I know the answer now. With most of our defensive corps locked up, the Pens are never out of a game right now. I think we are never out of a 7-game series right now, even without Sid. I think we are not out of a Stanley Cup march this year, even without Sid. We are watching a championship-level defense in front of our eyes, from the net out, night after night. Yes, the shootout wins lately...how many of those games, translated into playoff OT mode, do you see the Pens losing in the past few weeks? They don't win big...but they don't need to. Its what the Pens have always needed for a second dynasty. Now...will it come to fruition? We'll see.

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