EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It’s a weird part of the job, really.
Even while covering a Stanley Cup playoff series, somebody in this position – that of beat reporter – views what is happening with an eye toward how it might impact the approaching offseason. Early Tuesday morning, for example, a thought occurred:
Marc-Andre Fleury is about to get paid, again.
What a difference one year makes.
Fleury, the Penguins’ franchise goalie, was not a factor this time last season. His erratic play in Round 1 had contributed to the Penguins’ then 2-2 series tie in Round 1 against the New York Islanders, and veteran Tomas Vokoun had replaced him as the starter.
Until Game 5 of that series last May, Fleury had literally been the only Penguins goalie to start a playoff game during the Sidney Crosby era. After the Penguins were eliminated from the East final, there were some people within the organization who doubted if Fleury would be the go-to goalie for the second half of Crosby’s era.
By now, everybody knows he worked – at the Penguins’ mandate – with a sports psychologist in the offseason. Everybody knows that he was assigned a new goaltending coach, Mike Bales.
What not a lot of people know is that Fleury remained in weekly contact with his old goaltending coach, Gilles Meloche. The traded texts and phone calls throughout the season, but Meloche said they rarely talked about the position each played in the NHL.
“With Marc, I care about him a lot,” Meloche said. “We are very close. We talked a couple of times a week, but it was just two friends talking about our lives like any friends would.
“I think the only time we talked about hockey was when I’d say, ‘You’re looking great out there.’ I’m so happy for him.”
There is a long way to go in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Penguins, who lead their best-of-seven Round 2 series, 2-1. They do not even have half the required wins to become champions.
However, Fleury is at a 2.22 goals-against average and .925 save percentage through nine games – and with back-to-back shutouts, and his play to finish off Game 6 in Round 1 when the Penguins appeared to stop playing after taking a 4-0 lead at Columbus, there is mounting evidence that he is recapturing that long-ago “Big Game Goalie” form.
A year ago, there was a question – not from within the organization – about whether Fleury was a candidate for one of two compliance buyouts that every NHL club was granted after the lockout.
Now, after a sixth straight regular season with at least 35 wins, and because of his strong start in the playoffs, extending the contract of their franchise goalie will be a top priority for GM Ray Shero this summer.
>> Speaking of those compliance buyouts, something to keep in mind: The Penguins have each of their two remaining, but both must be used before next season or they no longer exists. Also, ONLY contracts signed under the previous labor agreement are eligible for compliance buyouts. Players signed as free agents or to extensions last summer can be bought out, but not at full cap relief.
>> It’s hard not to believe Alain Vigneault is the right man to lead the Rangers going forward. His squad lacks the weapons to wage postseason combat with the Penguins, and the Rangers are dealing with one of the most disadvantageous schedules in recent playoff history. Still, Vigneault had never made that schedule an issue publicly, and his players are leaving everything they have on the ice. The Rangers still need some scorers – ones whose best seasons were not with other clubs – but they have the right coach.
>> So do the Penguins, by the way. Yeah, nobody wants to hear that; but people that do not think Dan Bylsma can coach never will at this point. Look at what he did with a team that lost 529 man-games to injury during the regular season? Look at what he’s doing this postseason, which is presiding over a team that is transforming into one mentally tough enough to overcome franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scoring a goal in only three of the opening nine playoff games.
AND NOW, THE TUESDAY #TRIBHKY LINKS…
>> Criticized externally from Day 1 of the season, the Penguins were their own worst critics after Game 3 of Round 2. Thing is, they won: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061698-74/vigneault-louis-nash#axzz30u9hbo5w
>> A Flower flourished under the Garden’s bright light, by Josh Yohe: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061689-74/fleury-penguins-rangers#axzz30u9hbo5w
>> The Rangers need their stars, and their coach knows it, write contributor Denis Gorman: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061698-74/vigneault-louis-nash#axzz30u9hbo5w
>> A local product faced his hometown team in the playoffs, which leads the Game 3 notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061695-74/game-penguins-nhl#axzz30u9hbo5w
>> Columnist Dejan Kovacevic hated what he witnessed from Marc Staal in Game 3. So should the folks running the NHL, he opines: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061679-74/crosby-staal-nhl#axzz30u9hbo5w
>> THIS photo from our Chaz Palla shows what Dejan is getting at:
Be EXCELLENT to each other,