THE ONE IN WHICH TYLER KENNEDY HANDS OVER HIS WHIPPING BOY TITLE…
Gather ‘round, kids. We're gonna talk about Marc-Andre Fleury for a few minutes.
Given his less-than-stellar 2009-10 regular season and the frustrating way last season ended, Fleury was a lightning rod of criticism from the fanbase, and justifiably so. But with this being a new year and Fleury having all summer to stew over the way the season ended, I sometimes wondered during the summer how much rope he would get from the fanbase. Saturday night, I got my answer.
After dropping the season/arena opener 3-2 to the Flyers on Thursday night, we all shrugged our shoulders and staggered out of the new digs or flipped off the television with a liiiiiiiitle bit of disappointment, but not much. Sure, losing to the Flyers sucks and all, but we were still high on New Arena Euphoria. Besides, as far as the game went, it was mostly a bunch of missed Pens chances and an unconscious rookie goaltender that stole the show.
No, not him. He's not a rookie.
We'll see you in a couple of weeks, Bobrovsky, and we'll torch you for six. Ask Varlamov what happens when the Pens get a book on a rookie goalie.
So we got all keyed up for Saturday night because the Habs were coming to town. Cammalleri and his ridiculous face. Subban. The dolt with his Habs muppet last year. All the hate.
Yeah. Up 2-1 and less than two minutes left, the Pens surrendered two goals 24 seconds apart. The game-winner amounted to a Scott Gomez wrist shot from an odd angle that never really left ice-level, caught Fleury a little bit off balance and snuck through between Fleury's stick and his pads.
No excuses. That's a crappy goal by any standard and to make matters worse, the context didn't help. It was a physical, emotionally-charged game. We were less than two minutes away from christening Consol with its first win at the expense of a nemesis from last year. It was lining up to be a nice jumping-off point for this year.
Instead, disappointment city.
But in the rush of criticism of Fleury, some other things were lost, including maybe a little bit of overall perspective. A few things:
= Yes, the numbers don't reflect it (.889 save percentage), but Fleury was solid for the vast majority of the two games he's played so far. He was in position to make most of the saves he had to make. He read screens well. He handled traffic in front of the net fairly well. It wasn't about just making spectacular saves. He made a lot of the saves he needed to make. Yes, his rebound control was a little loose, but it's early.
= Two goals against came on deflections, including an unbelievable one by Briere. Two goals came as a result of shared blame with defensive brain farts – a Letang turnover (Giroux) and then Cammelleri's goal that came when Michalek was beaten behind the net by Plekanec. The other two were goals he misplayed – the goal to Betts off a bad rebound and then obviously the Gomez goal. That doesn't make the goals OK. But it does mitigate them. Hell, even Brooks Oprik opined after the game that the direct sequence that led to the Gomez goal was a breakdown in the forecheck. So either Brooks is an asshole who just threw his forwards under the bus in the name of protecting Fleury and his fragile little psyche, or maybe he's telling the truth. I'll side with the latter. Again, it doesn't absolve Fleury; he still needs to make a save on a shot like that. But the defenseman on the team is the one saying here that it's not ALWAYS the goalie. Speaking of which…
= Let's dispense with a fallacy here, OK? For the most part, there's no such thing as a "good" goal against. When they happen against your team, they're bad. They almost always leave you pissed off or irritated, save those few instances where the game is in hand and you throw up your arms and go, "Awww, shucks." It's no different than an interception for a quarterback. When Roethlisberger throws an interception at Heinz Field, no one sits back and goes, "Hey, that's a good interception." No, in a lot of cases, unless it's an absolutely unbelievable play by the defense, people boo like hell. INTs and goals against are all bad. They all suck. This all leads me to this…
= There are nights when, for lack of a better term, shit happens. The guys in the other jerseys are pretty good, too. Sometimes the other guy just makes a better play or gets a bounce or your guy just overplays the thing. The puck takes strange bounces. Your goalie has an off night every once in a while. A thousand different things can happen. For every night he gives up one goal or even posts a shutout, he may have just as many when he allows three or four. On other nights, maybe your goalie is good enough to usually get your team a win, but your offense just can't get more than two pucks the opposing netminder. Kinda like the home opener. And maybe even Game Two.
Your cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong is parked out back, Fleury.
= This is the thing with hockey. It's the only game where successes and failures really are a total team effort. A breakdown in a forecheck results in defensemen having to overcompensate and play out of position, giving a winger room to get down the wing and fire a bad-angle shot at the goalie. Game over. Bench Fleury.
In the same respect, a Pens defenseman wins a battle for puck behind his own net and fires it around and up left wing boards. Chris Kunitz busts his ass to get there and chip it out of the defensive zone, past a charging defenseman to Max Talbot, who had been heading up ice as the play developed. An odd-man rush ensues. The opposing goaltender has to overcompensate. Talbot beats him high glove side and goes into the history books as the game-winning goal scorer for the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet none of it happens without the defenseman winning that battle behind the net and Kunitz beating Brad Stuart to the board.
To all those ends, it's not entirely on Fleury.
There wasn't much talk of the missed chances by the offense. Just two goals in each of the first two games doesn't leave a lot of margin for error, but it's going to happen from time to time – see the Shit Happens Corollary. Go back and watch the highlights of the Philly game, though. There were so many missed open nets, you'll gag.
And the power play. You want to talk about early recurring nightmares? It was one-for-11 through the first two games, and mostly resembled a passing clinic again. Not overreacting, but it's left goals on the ice and that's a problem that also existed last year. It's especially frustrating given the personnel that are on the ice.
And relative to what was directed at Fleury after these three games, what about Crosby and Malkin? Hear me out here. They've combined for one goal and one assist through the first three games. Looking strictly at the numbers, it's well off their usual point-a-game pace but no one is panicking there. No one is questioning their abilities to ultimately get it done. Why?
In part, the numbers never tell the full story in hockey. Both have played better than their numbers have shown so far. Crosby is absolutely flying these first few games and between a few missed nets, hit goalposts and unbelievable saves by Bob Rossi and Price, he could easily have five or six goals at this point. Malkin has been just about as good. Plus, they're both legit. They've done it before and everyone assumes they'll just get going. And they will. But let me go in a different direction here as it relates to the embattled goalie.
Malkin struggled just as badly as Fleury did last year, maybe even worse. When looking back on last season and forward to this one, most believed rebound seasons by Fleury AND Malkin were essential to the ultimate success of this team. Interesting, then, that Fleury was the one to come away after the first two games bearing the brunt of the criticism for the 0-2 start, and little was said about the fact that Geno had *just* one goal to his credit.
Hasn't Fleury earned a bit of a break as well? Hasn't he come up big in big spots enough? This isn't a guy who was a passenger on the playoff runs. He held Ottawa to five goals in four games in the opening round of the 2007-08 playoffs, which was his second career NHL playoff series, by the way. He helped knock Lundqvist and Jagr out in five games. In two straight postseasons against the Flyers – perhaps the deepest offensive team in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08 and 2008-09 – he held them to 23 goals in 11 games. Game Seven against Washington in Washington. Games Six and Seven in the 2009 Cup Finals.
Yes, they're all playoff moments, but maybe that's the point. Maybe the fact that none of them happened in the regular season helps illustrate why a bad goal allowed in the second game of the regular season isn't really worth getting that upset over.
So was there anything good about the first three games? Sure.
= We're fast. Remember the up-tempo, edgy game that the team played with almost immediately after Bylsma took over? It's back. From a tempo and pace standpoint, this team is night-and-day from last year. No complacency. Not a lot of coasting or dead shifts like we saw last year, especially from some of the more veteran players. And we haven't even seen Asham yet.
= Paul Martin. I don't know if this highlights the differences in the NJ system as compared to other teams, or perhaps the restrictions they put on their defensemen. I say this because for all the times I've seen Jersey over the last few years, I don't remember him being THIS mobile. If the first three games are any indication, this guy is going to be an absolute steal for Shero. What a terrific fit this guy could be in this system. He's got to love this so far. He looks like he does.
= Letestu. Representing the #10, man.
= Comrie. He's maybe passed up some opportunities courtesy of Geno, but that may be part of the transition to a new team and maybe overplaying the "unselfish teammate" thing. But he's brought a dimension to the offense that we were missing last year and haven't seen since Sykora first arrived.
= Goligoski. He's been solid on defense and at least looked comfortable manning the point on the power play. Starting to show a willingness to trust his shot, so that's a start. We saw what he could do last year through the first month a repeat of what he was doing early on last year.
= Tangradi. Top six winger problem solved.
= Beej. Solid backup. Huge game against the Devils. Maybe this is something else that helps Fleury in the long run. Johnson is good enough to start a few games in a row, and maybe this pushes Fleury a little to maintain his focus. This could turn out to be a solid goaltending tandem along the lines of what the team had with Conkblock and Fleury.
MORE THOUGHTS, DUDES…
= I was going to post something here about Zbynek Michalalala and his -3 being proof that you can't always look at statistics to evaluate a guy's play. But I don't want that to be misconstrued as criticism. Dude needs all the good karma he can get right now. Please be OK.
= Carl Swanson from Equipco in Bridgeville could sell ice to an Eskimo. Dude is all business.
= Can someone at PensHD radio please promise us that there will be some variation in the commercials as the season goes on? Please tell me the Smith's hot dogs commercial isn't the only one?
= Hey, while we're talking about soft goals, I give you Alex Goligoski's goal to open the scoring against the Devils. See? It happens to the best of them. That triple Baconator on the horizon is getting close enough to smell, Marty.
= Kovalchuk just doesn't look right in a Devils jersey.
= Speaking of salary cap hell, take a good look at what is happening in New Jersey right now, and imagine what life could've possibly been like if we signed Hossa a few years ago. When you really think about it, a lot of that money proved instrumental in locking up Orpik and Letang, and combined with the expiration of Gonchar's contract, bringing in Martin and Michalek.
= It's stuff like this situation with NJ that makes me wonder if Lamoriello knows Marty is getting ready to retire after next year. Given that he's the only real franchise player they've ever had and they've got no one in house ready to step into that role, it wouldn't surprise me if Lou knows the writing is on the wall, and when Marty goes, it would be a good time to follow him out the door. So he signed Kovalchuk as a last-ditch effort to win at least one more Cup. Whether they do or not, both Lou and Marty retire and leave the new GM to clean up the salary cap mess.
= The Flyers have played three games and have just one fighting major at this point (Hartnell. Go figure.) The game against Pittsburgh was almost like the Bizzaro Flyers as they really didn't make much of an effort to start anything. Laviolette's never been a fan of that kind of game, and he's actually got these guys playing *le gasp* 2010 hockey. How much must this approach secretly be gnawing away at Bobby Clarke and Paul Holmgren? If they go on a losing streak of about six or seven games, wait and see.
= Teemu Selanne didn't come back for this kind of shit, Anaheim. Teemu, you want out of Anaheim and want to hoist the Cup again? You say the word, bub. Done and done. It was 90 degrees all summer here…it could be a warm winter.