PITTSBURGH – The fans were chanting for Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Only this wasn't acknowledgment. It was encouragement. The Philadelphia Flyers had just hit a goal post, Fleury had just left a fat rebound that needed to be cleared and the game was maybe a minute old.
The Penguins, the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, were facing elimination for the second time already just five games into the first round of the playoffs. Fleury, a standout in the regular season, had allowed a stunning 20 goals in the series. The fans knew they needed him to come through. They were going to make him come through.
So imagine the noise in the third period when Fleury made 14 saves to preserve a 3-2 victory Friday night – 10 straight during one 3-1/2-minute stretch, including seven against a Flyers power play that had been scoring at will. Even sniper Danny Briere, Philly's clutch playoff performer, couldn't beat him. Left pad. Stop. Stop.
"Sometimes it was easy saves, and they still cheer,"said Fleury afterward, leaning back in his dressing-room stall with a sheepish smile. "That was awesome."
The Penguins have cut the Flyers' series lead from 3-0 to 3-2. Win Sunday in Philadelphia, and they will force a Game 7 on Tuesday night back in Pittsburgh. They will give themselves a chance to become only the fourth NHL team to come back from a 3-0 deficit and win a best-of-7 series.
Make no mistake: The hole is still deep. Maybe too deep. Two teams came back from 3-0 deficits in the playoffs last year – the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings – and neither could win Game 7.
But the series is shifting, and the Flyers had best put a stop to it Sunday. They do not want to come back to Pittsburgh, even though this loss was their first in eight meaningful games at the two-year-old Consol Energy Center. They do not want to let the Penguins get rolling any more than they already are.
Because this is what the Penguins can do.
Sidney Crosby is supposed to be the best player in the world, but other than faceoffs – of which he won 73 percent – he was quiet despite 20 minutes of ice time Friday night. Evgeni Malkin is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, but he might have been more valuable to the Flyers, putting them on the power play with two bad penalties, mishandling the puck all night, even smacking into Crosby at one point.
The Penguins are so deep that it didn't matter. Their best skaters were their third-liners. Jordan Staal, who really is a third No. 1 center on a team stacked down the middle, scored his sixth of the series to tie the game 2-2 in the second period. Tyler Kennedy, who set up Staal's goal, scored the winner later in the second, firing a slapshot through a screen, dancing in delirium until he finally bashed himself into the boards.
And then there was Fleury.
Malkin might be the league's MVP, but some say Fleury was the team's MVP during the regular season. Not that he showed it early in the series. No, the defense wasn't good in front of him, but he was plenty porous himself as he allowed 17 goals in Games 1, 2 and 3. He was yanked two periods into Game 3. He looked nothing like the goaltender who won the Cup in 2009, and people started to notice that, hmmm, his playoff record had been pretty spotty since.
"It's not easy," Fleury said. "It's playoff time. You want to do well. You want to win. It seemed like nothing was going right for us."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma gave Fleury a vote of confidence. He said Fleury would be in goal the next four games. It seemed a trite, stubborn comment with no real significance, because everyone knew Fleury would remain the starter. As bad as Fleury had been, no one expected Bylsma to turn to backup Brent Johnson.
Early in Game 4, Fleury let two pucks slip between his pads. But he settled down after the first period, and a 4-3 lead turned into a 10-3 rout. He shut down the Flyers over the final 40 minutes. Even though the Flyers shut down themselves, too, it was progress.
The fans were determined to keep it going. They helped Fleury through the first period of this one. He gave up two power-play goals – a wrister from the point through traffic, then a high shot from in close on a 5-on-3 – and the Penguins fell behind, 2-1. But that was it. He shut down the Flyers through the final 40 minutes again.
Fleury stopped Jaromir Jagr with his left pad early in the second. After Staal and Kennedy gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead, he flashed his glove, he flashed his left pad again and he was just getting started.
Shortly afterward, Max Talbot, his old teammate, threw the puck in front from behind the net. Fleury jumped, lest the puck hit his skates and skip into the net – except Scott Hartnell was lurking. "Knowing that he was there," Fleury said, "maybe I wouldn't have jumped over that one." Fleury landed just in time. He stopped Hartnell.
The fans didn't even bother to chant his name that time. They just roared.
"Fleury played well tonight," Hartnell said. "It looks like he's getting hot, so it's going to be that much harder."
Suddenly, this looks like a series. Suddenly, this looks like playoff hockey. Fleury made some more stops down the stretch, and the Penguins frustrated the Flyers – blocking shots, clearing pucks, battling to the final horn. The wide-open action had given way to gritty work, the lopsided scores to a one-goal game. Anxiety had turned to hope in Pittsburgh.
"It was loud, and it was awesome," Staal said. "They made a push, but Flower made some unbelievable saves. The guys did a good job of keeping them to the outside. It was a great third period."
If Fleury can stay hot, the Penguins have a shot. He can be better than the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov, who allowed three goals on 23 shots and has been shaky all series after being brought in to be great in the playoffs.
Who do you think will be under more pressure in Game 6 in Philly? Who do you think will handle it better? Who inspires more confidence?
In a quiet moment Friday night, after the fans had left the stands and most of the reporters had left the dressing room, Penguins chairman Mario Lemieux walked up to Fleury, still half-dressed in his gear, still leaning back in his stall. He shook his hand. He slapped him on the pads.
Fleury's smile was magnificent.
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