Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Marc-Andre Fleury: the Flyers Dilemma (with apologies to Michael Pollan)

The Penguins head back to the friendly confines of Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs over the hated Philadelphia Flyers for one reason: Marc-Andre Fleury has got his eyes on.

That the Flower is the MVP of this series goes without saying. Why? A certain equanimity in the face of hoards of rushing, marauding Flyers is certainly one reason. The other is that Fleury is like a great hunter-gatherer who has his eyes on.

Like half of America, my beloved GearGal is reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which saves me the trouble of reading it because she fills me in on the highlights. (Quick synopsis:  agribusiness is evil and read your labels). But watching Fleury turn away shot after shot, using his feet, his stick, his glove, and I think even his neck guard at one point, I said, 'wow, he's seeing the puck when there is no way he can see it,' to which she replied, 'he's like a great mushroom hunter who "has his eyes on."'

That is to say, a person skilled in foraging for mushrooms can spot the elusive little fungi in areas that seem like a homogeneous visual plain to the untrained eye, composed of nothing but leaves and tangled branches and such. Of course, because Pollan is a bad ass, he dug a little deeper into the phenomena:

"I became, perforce, a student of the 'pop-out effect,' a term I'd first heard from mushroomers but subsequently learned is used by psychologists studying visual perception. To reliably distinguish a given object in a chaotic or monochromatic visual field is a daunting perceptual task, one so complex that researchers in artificial intelligence have struggled to teach it to computers. Yet, when we fix in our mind some visual quality of the object we're hoping to spot -- whether its color or pattern or shape -- it will pop out of the visual field, almost as if on command. To get your eyes on is to have this narrow visual filter installed and functioning. That's why Ben had me practice on his finds, to fix in my mind's eye the pattern of morels as seen against the forest's layer of duff. To hunt for mushrooms makes you appreciate what a crucial evolutionary adaptation the pop-out effect is for a creature that forages for food in a forest -- especially when that food doesn't want to be found."

And it seems to me, when Fleury is going good, when he's got his eyes on, he's experiencing advanced, heightened pop-out effect. He made 45 saves on Tuesday night in Philadelphia. 45! And at least half of those came in rush-hour on the Schuylkill-type traffic, with two or three or four bodies in front of him, each shielding him from a clear view of potential shooters, obscuring his view of an airborn puck until the last second. But he saw them all. (Even the one that got in, but his toe got caught in the goal post slowing him down enough that he couldn't get to it.) 

Of course, the 2003 overall number 1 draft pick has the speed, agility, flexibility, strength and toughness necessary to respond to those shots. But let's face it, if we put a mere mortal, even a really good hockey player, in net last night, at least five other shots would have lit the scoring lamp, because another guy wouldn't have even seen those shots. There was one shot where he was standing directly behind a Flyer and a Pen, as a shot whistled toward his right shoulder, and just like that, his glove was up, as he cradled the puck with the kind of ease one would expect during a laconic game of backyard catch.

There is no telling what the Pens can do if The Flower keeps his eyes on.