(To readers: This was the early-edition column that went out to our print subscribers to hold space for the final version written after overtime. I’ll stress anew: This was written and filed BEFORE Game 3.)
BOSTON — Au revoir to the Flower.
The Penguins no longer trust Marc-Andre Fleury.
Really, there was no other reasonable way to interpret Dan Bylsma and the team sticking by Tomas Vokoun for Game 3 of this Eastern Conference final against the Bruins, facing their potential doom and desperate for something, anything to turn the tide, yet shunning their not-so-long-ago franchise goaltender.
It’s too bad, really.
No, not Bylsma’s decision. The coach made not only the right call but also the only call, as I saw it. There was no way he could abandon Vokoun after completely – and correctly – absolving his playoff mainstay Vokoun of all three goals given up before the hook in Game 2. And similarly, there was no way Bylsma could justify choosing Fleury after Fleury entered Game 2 and promptly conceded a long-range floater to Brad Marchand, then two more.
It’s unfortunate, maybe a little unfair that Fleury came in cold after three weeks on the folding chair. As Vokoun, to his credit, spoke in Fleury’s defense: “It was really tough on Marc coming in and playing after such a long time.”
But that’s the position, and these are the playoffs. And put bluntly, Fleury hasn’t done what’s required of his position in the playoffs since, what, the iconic save on Nicklas Lidstrom to win the Stanley Cup in 2009?
He’s had chance after chance, too, many more than that Marchand shot. He’s had the Canadiens, the Lightning, the Flyers and this year the Islanders. There were different supporting casts and other ups and downs, no doubt, but all those performances added up to some hideous numbers since the Cup – 14-16 record, 3.18 goals-against average, .880 save percentage – and, more important, all of them ended in defeat.
Now, it would appear, it’s just ended.
Bylsma, no doubt in consultation with his staff and Ray Shero and maybe even folks higher on the front-office food chain, made the decision on the off-day Tuesday – when the coach informed both goaltenders of his choice – that, essentially, they no longer believe Fleury can perform when it counts most.
If you can picture how that bridge gets patched up, you’re more creative than I am. I don’t see it.
Fleury has two years and $10 million left on his contract — $5 million annually — and it’s borderline unfathomable Shero would want that on his payroll if he no longer sees Fleury as No. 1. Remember, this is the summer where the Penguins need to sign, among others, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis, all with the NHL’s salary cap is set to shrink by $7 million.
There’s not a spare cent to invest in a player you don’t trust, much less one at the sport’s most vital position.
Vokoun has another year at $2 million. He’ll be 37, so he’ll need help, but he has a career’s history of carrying a heavy load. Maybe it’s time to sign someone else, or time to begin grooming the next guy.
What Fleury’s achieved in Pittsburgh can’t be erased. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft after Craig Patrick boldly traded up to get him. He stepped right in as an 18-year-old, in part because Mario Lemieux showed faith at first sight. He owns the franchise marks for wins (249) and shutouts (26). And yeah, he did stop Lidstrom for what – with apologies to Frank “The Save” Pietrangelo – was truly the greatest stop in franchise history.
No one can take that away, any more than the lovable, childlike personality.
But it’s time to move on, for the Penguins and probably for Fleury, too. He’s 28. He has, just as he always has, the skill level to be the best in the world. He might just set aside these demons that have engulfed him every spring and put it together somewhere else and form a new bond.
This one’s lost its bloom.