DETROIT -- Less than two minutes remained in a Game 6 the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to win to save their season ... and one of the Detroit Red Wings' most prolific scorers was breaking in alone on Marc-Andre Fleury.
It wasn't the most pleasant sight for the young goaltender whose confidence could have been reasonably undermined from being pulled in the previous game.
Fleury had only an instant to decide whether his best chance at preserving a 2-1 lead would be to attempt a poke check or to wait out Dan Cleary's move. He opted for the latter, deflecting away the backhand shot and prompting Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr to text message a friend in Penguins owner Mario Lemieux's box, saying, "That might be your Cup."
And Fleury's chance to prove he really is one of the game's elites.
The jury remains out on the 24-year-old netminder -- even if he has put up some big numbers over the last few seasons -- largely because his often-spectacular efforts tend to get overshadowed by much weaker ones at inopportune times.
Like in the deciding Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, when Fleury allowed a pair of weak goals in a 3-2 loss after stealing a triple-overtime victory in the previous game.
Or in his three losses in these Finals in Detroit, all erratic outings that, despite some remarkable performances in these playoffs, have kept doubts alive. At least outside the Penguins inner circle, that is.
|The Penguins are hoping 'franchise savior' Marc-Andre Fleury can help them glove a championship. (Getty Images)|
"The breakaway in the third period is a pretty big save at a pretty big time for our team, and that's what Marc-Andre has been able to do for our team throughout the playoffs."
Even so, Fleury has to prove he can get Pittsburgh to the next level, something the team has been counting on since anointing him franchise savior at the tender age of 18. That was back in 2003, well before Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin arrived to take over that pressure, when Fleury became only the third goaltender in history to be drafted first overall. It was a special distinction, but the downside -- as it usually is for anyone taken with that pick -- is that it meant going to a pretty bad team.
In Fleury's case, the problem was compounded because of the dire financial straits Pittsburgh was in at the time.
Facing bankruptcy again, the Penguins had been unloading high-priced stars for a couple of years and were in need of an attraction. So instead of giving its newest prize a chance to grow up before getting to the NHL, Pittsburgh rushed Fleury into the lineup the following season, when he was still eligible to play junior hockey. It was as much an attempt to sell some tickets as it was to improve the team, but the plan bordered on the disaster because Fleury clearly wasn't ready and suffered the consequences with such a weak team in front of him.
"It was really hard to watch," recalled former Penguins forward Ryan Malone. "I mean, the guy was seeing so many shots, it was ridiculous. We didn't have a very good team and he was getting lit up all the time, so everyone really kept wondering why this was happening and where we were going."
That didn't long to figure out. The Penguins ended up dead last while Fleury played in 21 games, winning just four and posting a goals-against average of 3.64. He started the season in Pittsburgh and showed flashes of the talent that made him his draft year's prize, but Fleury was sent back to juniors in December, only to be recalled a month later, moves that raised questions about whether his development was being mishandled.
"I don't think so," Fleury said of his rush to the pros. "It was a tough situation with the team we had and I was pretty young, but getting to the NHL is everybody's dream and I was glad to have the chance. I think it helped me get better."
Not everyone agreed, even as recently as last season after Fleury had put together a 40-win 2006-07 and helped Pittsburgh get to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Fleury had a slow start to 2007-08 and then went down with a high ankle sprain midway through. But instead of fading, the Penguins caught fire under their backups, leading critics to argue that Fleury was really nothing more than an average goaltender on an offensively talented team.
It didn't help when GM Ray Shero joked before last year's playoffs that he had spent Christmas looking for the kind of goaltender many felt was the missing piece on the team, but "there were none available," although he quickly insisted that the organization never had any intention of giving up on Fleury.
Fleury responded with a strong postseason before falling short in the deciding game of the title round against Detroit. Now, with a chance to win it all in Game 7 on Friday, he gets another chance to show he really is among the NHL's best -- even if that's not foremost in his mind right now.
"You have stuff happening in your head, but you have to just block all the outside, all the negative thoughts and just play the game, keep it simple, have some fun," Fleury said. "To have an opportunity like this to get [the Cup], it's awesome."