Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Penguins Focus Should Not Be Sidney Crosby, Fleury Is The Key To Their Success

When you have arguably the two best forwards in the NHL the rest of your team is going to get overlooked.  Sidney Crosby is the most talked about player in the National Hockey League.  Evgeni Malkin is the reigning MVP.  Together and it almost seems like an anomaly that they should win the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis.  You have two players who have the skills to score a hat trick on a nightly occasion.  Then you add in the fact that in different in season deals they acquired Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, and Brandon Morrow.  The Pens have eight players with over ten goals in the shortened season.  (That doesn't even include Malkin who was hurt for parts of the season.)  The Penguins have the scariest offense that has been assembled in years.  They have leadership, chemistry, and skill to go along with the intangibles of being part of that culture. 

Crosby will be the biggest story as he has started skating after taking a vicious shot to the face that ended up breaking his jaw.  It is almost certain he will be back this series.  What kind of factor will he be?  What kind of conditioning will he have?  Is it ironic that he is returning against the Islanders, the same team he returned against last year?

Better question, who cares?

Crosby has shown that he has little effect on whether the Penguins go anywhere in the playoffs.  He has played in the post season five times.  His averages look like this:
2007 First Round Exit, 1.00 points per game
2008 Stanley Cup Loss, 1.35 points per game
2009 Stanley Cup Win, 1.29 points per game
2010 Second Round Exit, 1.46 points per game
2012 First Round Exit, 1.33 points per game

No matter what, the captain's production stayed the same yet the win/loss changed dramatically every year.  How could this be?  There are many things someone can point to, but there is only one constant in this entire scenario, Marc Andre Fleury.  The Penguins goalie seems to be solely responsible for the success and failure of the franchise. 

If you look at the season stats of Fleury's you would think he is a dominant goalie and one of the best in the league.  Yet when that conversation comes up you never hear his name mentioned outside of Pittsburgh.  The problem with him is his consistency.  He can pitch a shutout or allow seven goals on any given night.  That kind of play doesn't really fare well when you are playing the top competition on a nightly basis.  That is what the playoffs is all about. 

The playoffs has not always been kind to Fleury.  In 75 postseason games he has a .904 save percentage.  It ends up being a lot lower than his career .910 save percentage.  What is even more alarming is the difference in win percentage.  It is alarming because his win percentage is higher in the playoffs than it is during the regular season.  A goalie with the two greatest scorers of our generation on the same team has to put up like a 65 percent winning percentage, right?  Nope.  It is around 55 percent in the regular season and 57 percent in the playoffs.  The playoff stats do not stack up against some of the better players in the league, old and new.  Here are the playoff stats against some of the better goalies in the league:

M. Fleury           75 GP 2.68 GAA .904 SV% 5 SO
H. Lundqvist      55 GP 2.31 GAA .917 SV% 6 SO
M. Brodeur       205 GP 2.02 GAA .919 SV % 24 SO
J. Quick             32 GP 2.12 GAA .926 SV% 4 SO
T. Thomas         50 GP 2.07 GAA .933 SV% 6 SO

Those numbers say something.  It says that there is a reason that you never hear Fluery's name when a conversation about the best goaltenders in the league is occurring.  His numbers speak volumes about why there is only one ring on Crosby's finger. 

So what is the problem with Fleury?  Early in his career he carried two teams to Stanley Cup appearances, with one being a win.  Every time that he has a save percentage over .900 the Penguins make it to the Stanley Cup.  Think about that for one second, if he could be around league average in the playoffs he makes it to the championship every time.  That is a stat that one does not need to get into to understand why he is an intricate part of Pittsburgh winning a cup.  Where did it go wrong?  You can't blame it on the pressure of a big contract because he won the cup the year after he signed it.  You can't say he whittles under pressure because he brought one Stanley Cup to a seventh game and came back and beat that same team the next year.  He plays well under pressure as proof by winning game seven on the road in Joe Louis Arena (one of the hardest to play in).  The only thing that can be pointed to is a loss of confidence.

Sports can be more mentally tough than physically tough sometimes.  With all the injuries you see that may be impossible to believe, but it is true.  Confidence is an athletes best friend while he has it.  Irrational confidence can make an average player into a star because he never second guesses himself.  It can make a basketball players shot go in, a baseball player hit a home run, and a quarterback throw a perfect spiral.  A loss of confidence can make all those things turn to garbage just as quickly.  Fleury spent his first three playoff appearances as the next big thing.  He was going to carry the Pens to a dynasty.  Then the Montreal series happened.  The Pens came in as heavy favorites to beat the 8th seeded Canadiens.  They received 101 points during the regular season and were thought of as a legitimate contender to the Cup once again.  When the first seed Capitals and the second seed Devils were both upset in the first round then it was a foregone conclusion that it was Pittsburgh's title to lose.  The Canadiens had other ideas and took down the Pens in seven games.  The last game was particularly bad for Fleury as he allowed four goals in just over twenty-five minutes of ice time.  His SV% that game was under .700.  Since that game Fleury has gone 5-8 with a .868 save percentage and allowing 3.31 goals per game. 

One just needs to look at last year to see the issue Fleury presents.  The Penguins scored 26 goals in the six game series against Philadelphia.  They only won two games.  The competition ended up scoring 30 goals in that same span.  That's an average of five goals every game.  I have said this before, it was literally the worst professional sports performance I have seen in my entire lifetime.  It was almost sad.  You felt bad for Fleury.  You didn't know what went wrong.  You just knew it was wrong.

This entire postseason rests on the broad shoulders of the former number one overall pick.  If he can regain his form from four years ago then the rest of the NHL is in trouble.  If not then its clear that the Penguins can be outscored.  This is do-or-die for Marc Andre.  If he falters one more time in the same kind of fashion he has then the Pens may look in another direction for the future of their franchise.  They don't know how long they can afford to keep Malkin and Crosby together.  They don't know how much longer Crosby's body is going to hold up.  They can't waste the prime years of these two superstars with a goalie who cannot play to their level.  Its up to Marc at this point to prove to us he can get back on that elite level, or else.

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