For the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, the ending of Game Four should be a wake up call. The series itself has been a wild one, with every game ending 4-3, and the eventual losers of each respective game blowing a lead of two goals or more. In the NHL playoffs, any series that goes six games or more is worth a watch, let alone a matchup of the second seed against the seventh seed. The Columbus Blue Jackets came into the series serious underdogs, but their hard work and physical play have allowed them to hold their own. However, for Pittsburgh, the series has brought up haunting flashbacks of playoff exits in the past. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the series thus far has shown that they may be just one major piece short of another run at the Stanley Cup.
It is hard to ignore the elephant in the room, especially after Game Four. Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury turned what should have been a victory for his team into a loss, almost single handedly. With under a minute left in the game, Fleury exited the net to play the puck, despite other Pittsburgh defenders in the area at the time. The puck hopped over his stick, eventually leaving Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky a wide-open net to shoot at.
“I don’t think there is a strict rule [on when to play the puck],” Fleury said. “There is different glass around different rinks. It’s different and the boards are different, but the dump was pretty soft, the puck was coming pretty slow. Usually the puck kind of dies down, and I don’t know why but it took a funny bounce and it wasn’t funny at all.”
Bad bounce or not, Fleury was primarily responsible for that game-tying goal. He had a chance to shake it off and redeem himself in overtime, but once again, his confidence issues reared its ugly head, giving up an inexcusable goal to give Columbus the win. Unscreened wrist shots from the blueline are bad goals to give up, regardless of the situation, but in the playoffs and in overtime? That is simply something that cannot happen.
Now the Penguins should be concerned. The concern should not be because their series against the Blue Jackets has turned into a “Best of three”. Pittsburgh has shown the ability to win two games out of three, especially with team having two of the three at home. Instead, Pittsburgh should be concerned about the mental state of their starting goaltender, and in turn, the mental state of the team. Any championship team is built on trust. Trust in the coach to make the right calls, trust in ones’ teammates to make the right plays, and trust in the goaltender to make the saves he needs to make. After Game Four, that trust has almost certainly taken a serious hit. If it were the first time this sort of play from Fleury has appeared, it could be treated as a poor night and be easily put into the past. Instead, it is a pattern that has appeared far too often for Pittsburgh fans and their team.
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Marc-Andre Fleury has not posted a save percentage of above .900 in the playoffs, and in the games that matter the most, he has wilted under the pressure. In both 2010 and 2011, Pittsburgh exited the playoffs after blowing a series lead and losing in Game Seven. For both Game Sevens, Fleury allowed four goals on less than 15 shots, putting his team in holes they simply could not recover from. He fared no better in 2012 or 2013, eventually losing his starting job to Tomas Vokoun mid-series in 2013. After Pittsburgh’s exit that year, the team requested Fleury begin seeing a sports psychologist. The organization knew that it was simply unacceptable to have their starting goaltender crumbling under the pressure of the playoffs.
“Goalie is a delicate position, no different than a golfer or a tennis player: You’re on your own a lot,” Pittsburgh General Manager Ray Shero said at the time. “I think it’s a good step for him, which he’s really taken seriously since our year-end meeting.”
Fleury did appear to turn a page, performing admirably for the Penguins in the regular season. But the organization brought him to the psychologist to fix his issues in the playoffs, and so far, he has not shown improvement in that regard. Pittsburgh held a 3-0 lead in Game Four after the first period, and while they showed very little to be proud of for the following two periods, a 3-0 lead should be enough to get a team a win.
It almost was. If Fleury had not decided to wander out of the net in the final 30 seconds of the game, Pittsburgh likely would have won Game Four and could have wrapped up the series at home tomorrow night. Instead, they play at least two more games in front of a goaltender that cannot be riding high at the moment. The series, and the rest of Pittsburgh’s playoff run, has yet to be decided, but it appears that the Pittsburgh Penguins may be one major piece short of making another run at the Stanley Cup.
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Commentary by Jonathan Gardner