- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

PITTSBURGH | Glance past the small patches of facial hair that comprise Marc-Andre Fleury’s playoff beard and the boyish looks of a teenager are still there.

He still might look like the same 18-year-old who had the weight of a franchise placed on his shoulders nearly five years ago, but the 23-year-old grew up Monday night in Detroit. With his Pittsburgh Penguins at the brink of elimination, Fleury turned aside 55 of 58 shots in a triple-overtime Game 5 victory.

“I’ve know Marc very well, and that’s the greatest game he’s ever played,” Penguins forward Maxime Talbot said. “He was so good last night. It was inspiring for us.”

Detroit has dominated for much of the series, but maybe never more so than in the third period and first overtime Monday night. During that span, the Red Wings outshot the Penguins 27-6.

It wasn’t a matter of if the Red Wings would produce a Cup-winning goal; it was who and when. But Fleury and his beleaguered defense corps - which missed top minute-muncher Sergei Gonchar because of back spasms - kept the Penguins alive.

“He was just making save after save,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “He was really the savior for us last night. … No doubt without him we’d be in a different scenario today.”

The road from No. 1 overall pick to savior has not been easy for Fleury. When the Penguins traded up from the third pick to select Fleury, he became, at the time, the centerpiece of the franchise’s post-Jaromir Jagr rebuilding effort.

Fleury endured some turbulent years before he became the team’s No. 1 goaltender. He played in 21 games as a rookie in 2003-04, but the 23-47-8-4 Penguins returned him to his team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League so they could avoid paying him a $3 million bonus for appearing in 25 contests.

After he spent the lockout in the American Hockey League, Fleury split time with both Sebastien Caron and Jocelyn Thibault during the 2005-06 campaign.

Critics bemoaned Fleury’s performances on the grander stage, and the evidence mounted. Fleury was Canada’s netminder in the 2003-04 world junior championship, and he put a clearing attempt off defenseman Braydon Coburn into his own net in the third period of an upset loss to the Americans in the gold medal game.

Fleury followed that with two years of disappointing performances in the Calder Cup playoffs. Several of the current Washington Capitals played for the Hershey Bears club that swept Fleury’s team in four games in 2005-06.

“I think he has matured a lot since then,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “It is his mental status - he doesn’t get as rattled. He would get frustrated when things didn’t go his way. You look at what he did last night - they were peppering him left and right, and he was amazing.”

Fleury settled into the No. 1 role full-time last year, becoming only the second goalie in team history to win 40 games in a season. Again though, the questions about Fleury resurfaced when he had a 3.76 goals-against average in the Penguins’ five-game loss to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

If there was going to be a season in which Fleury was going to make “The Leap,” this didn’t seem like the one in December. The Penguins scuffled, and Fleury left the Dec. 6 game at Calgary with a high-ankle sprain.

During his 11-week absence, Ty Conklin rescued Pittsburgh with his work in net, and when Fleury returned, the No. 1 job was not handed back to him. Fleury had played well right before the injury, but when he came back, he won nine of his first 10 starts.

Once the postseason began, Fleury remained among the league leaders in GAA and save percentage as the Penguins romped into the Cup finals.

Then there was his performance Monday night, which may have eradicated any doubt about Fleury’s ability as a big-game goaltender.

“That’s going to be huge for him,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “He was outstanding in overtime, and both goalies obviously played really well. But no doubt for Fleury, [it was] probably the most important win in his career.”

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