Heading into Wednesday night’s encounter with Tampa Bay, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t have particularly fond memories of his last playoff game. Not after leaking for four goals on 13 shots during a do-or-die Game 7 versus Montreal—an outing that contributed to a precipitous early-season decline.
It was a far different Fleury who manned the pipes during the team’s series opener against the Lightning–one who’s emerged as perhaps the best goalie in hockey. Backed by “the Flower’s” sparkling 32-save performance, the Pens dumped the Bolts 3-0 before a sellout crowd at CONSOL Energy Center to snatch the series lead.
“Whatever needs to be done,” Fleury said afterward. “I just tried to do my thing, and the players up front got some big goals for us and it worked out all right.”
Following a great chance by James Neal and a thunderous check by Brooks Orpik on Tampa Bay sniper Steven Stamkos in the opening moments, the visitors took charge. Fortunately, Fleury was razor-sharp. Just two minutes in the willowy netminder stoned ex-Pen Ryan Malone from a goal-mouth scramble. Midway through the period he made a pair of brilliant saves on Dominic Moore and Malone–the latter a high-reel stop with his back to the play that was arguably the turning point of the game.
Aided by a hooking call to feisty Steve Downie, the Penguins sprang to life early in the second period. Although they failed to capitalize with the man advantage, they peppered goalie Dwayne Roloson with six shots, including a jam attempt by Jordan Staal that narrowly missed the mark. While his black-and-gold teammates began to solve Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 trap, Fleury continued to come up big, turning aside good chances by Vincent Lecavalier and ex-Flyer Simon Gagne.
Entering the final 20 minutes, it appeared the first team to score would win. Just past the six-minute mark the Pens finally broke through. Paul Martin picked off a wayward clearing attempt along the left-wing boards and dished a short backhand pass to Neal. The big forward quickly fed the puck to Alexei Kovalev, who was stationed to the right of the Tampa Bay net. Kovy made no mistake and whipped the puck past Roloson for his first playoff goal as a Penguin since 2001.
Before you could say “AK 72” the pumped-up Pens struck again. Eighteen seconds later Arron Asham chugged down the right side of the Lightning zone and faked a slap shot to draw Roloson out of position. The gritty winger then circled behind the net and, after missing a stuff attempt, gathered in his own rebound and rifled the puck home from a sharp angle.
Tampa’s best chance came at the 15-minute mark, when Lecavalier flattened Martin and set up Stamkos inside the left faceoff circle. However, the sharpshooter winger pushed the puck high and wide of the cage. Chris Kunitz scored an empty-netter with 41 seconds to play to put the game on ice.
The Penguins out-shot the Lightning 40-32 … The much-maligned power play was 0-6, but showed signs of improvement … Fleury’s shutout was his fifth in postseason play, second only to Tom Barrasso … The Pens won 32 of 60 faceoffs … Brooks Orpik led the team with seven hits … Mike Comrie, Deryk Engelland, Eric Godard and Eric Tangradi were healthy scratches.
The Penguins and Bolts square off for Game 2 Friday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and colorful history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more. A must have for any true Penguins fan.