A handful of years ago, before the Penguins 2008-2009 Stanley Cup Victory, fans were whining and carping about Marc-Andre Fleury -- that he wasn't any good, that he'd never be any good and that the organization should ship away the overall No. 1 pick from the 2003 draft. Okay, not all fans, but there was a vocal group, a minority I hoped, who were foolishly impatient and virulently anti-Fleury. I still hear grumbles from time to time from some fringe wing-nuts about Fleury, but mostly I ignore them because you can never try to bring reason to a sports argument with an idiot.
I have this theory about hockey and I may be just as full of it as the Flower-bashers, but the theory goes: the closer you play to the net, the longer it takes to mature, the longer it takes to get to your game, as it were. A winger or centerman can come in and be good right away. Not that he'll have a complete game, mind you, but the positives he brings to the ice are so apparent that everybody forgives a couple of holes in his game. This is especially true with hockey-savants like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, but even for ordinary talents, you can see their upside more readily than you can in a defenseman or goalie.
As to the defensemen, again, I'm going to stick with a Pittsburgh example -- Rob Scuderi. There was a season (2005-2006, I think) when I actually audibly groaned whenever Scuds took the ice. I had very few nice things to say about him. His game was painful to watch sometimes, but he kept chipping away at his game, kept improving in little ways, ways that probably only he and his teammates and coaches could see at first. He learned how to play his position, how to position his body to best help Fleury, how to maneuver incoming snipers off of their preferred lines of approach, how to work in tandem with the other defender, how to time throwing his body in front of pucks. By the time the Penguins made it to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance following the 2007-2008 season, Scuds and Brooks Orpik were the team's best pure defensemen. A year later, when the team actually won the Stanley Cup, nobody was bigger on the back end than Rob Scuderi.
And if it felt like we had to be patient with Scuds, even more patience is needed with a brilliant net-minder. As good as Fleury was when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, he's been even better this year. Last night, through a first period when the Lightning tilted the ice in his direction (at a pretty steep slope mind you), Flower stood tall and withstood the marauding hordes.
There were so many Tampa players in Fleury's personal space, it looked like the Lightning called a team meeting in the crease. But he denied them time and again, managing to swat pucks away that he couldn't get a bead on, blocking pucks with his ass, blocking them with the back of his knee, pulling pucks out of the air like a left-fielder, smiting all 14 shots on net that came his way in the first period.
That's not to say he didn't play a brilliant game for all 60 minutes, but the Penguins got to their game in the second period (as coach Bylsma likes to say), putting the pressure on Roloson, getting out in transition quickly, not allowing multiple rushes at Fleury, but limiting the chances per possession.
So many players contributed. Brooks Orpik, I believe, got in Steven Stamkos' head when he crushed him on the very first shift of the game. Stamkos only got one shot on net and only attempted four shots total. Call it the Orpik Effect.
James Neal was likewise finishing people off all over the ice, then made a spectacular pass to Alex Kovalev to finally break the scoreless tie.
Seconds later, Arron Asham got a great goal that was the fruit of sticking to the puck like white on rice.
You don't win a playoff game without a holistic team effort, but nobody stood taller than the Flower in Game 1.
[All photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review]