Fleury stars in Penguins late-game meltdown against Blue Jackets

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time in last night’s game when all was well with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Goals by Craig Adams, Chris Kunitz and James Neal gave the Pens a 3-0 lead in the first period. Money in the bank, right? Should’ve been.

It’s been a long time since the Penguins made the Stanley Cup Finals twice in a row. Part of the reason they’ve been unable to duplicate the success they enjoyed in 2008 and ’09 is because of poor team defence in the postseason — an inability to protect a lead. It happened again.

The Jackets chipped away at the 3-0 deficit that they had no business erasing, and with 24 seconds remaining in the third-period they equalized with their net empty. The tying goal was the direct result of a botched dump-in, mishandled by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury behind the Penguins cage. Jackets’ young star Ryan Johansen recovered the puck and dished it high slot to teammate Brandon Dubinsky who scored to the sound of thousands going mad with exhilaration. Game tied. Fleury untied.

Entering this first-round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets the latter had not won a single postseason game in its history, stemming back to the team’s debut in 2000-01. Now, they’ve won two in three games.

One of hockey’s oldest cliches is that a two goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey. Boy, the Penguins and Blue Jackets are certainly proving it — thrice through four games has Pittsburgh or Columbus erased a 3-1 lead to win the day. Incredible.

Blowing postseason leads is nothing new for the Penguins or their goaltender Fleury. According to Ken Laird of TribLIVE Fleury has blown a two-goal lead in 11 of his past 14 playoff starts dating back to 2012.

Wow.

Last night’s loss will be pinned on Marc-Andre Fleury despite his team’s collective inability to secure a lead. And in this case, it’s warranted. Less than four minutes into overtime Fleury allowed a wrister from distance to sail through the space between his left pad and catching glove. Comeback complete.

Fleury’s recent reputation as a poor playoff goaltender may raise questions about his starting status in Game 5 this coming Saturday in Pittsburgh. One year ago, the Penguins advanced to the Conference Finals with Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, having taken over for Fleury in the first-round against the Islanders. The playoffs before last — back in 2012 — Fleury was a sieve, losing in 6 to the Flyers.

Odd games are important in a series. The Penguins would be asking for trouble if they lose to Columbus this coming Saturday and thrust themselves into a Game 6 scenario back in Ohio, with their playoff lives on the line. The desperation of the situation is no joke. Does Fleury play in Game 5? Can he be trusted to remain composed in Game 5; to do what is necessary for his team to win?

The decision is Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma’s to make, and it’s probably not an easy one. Under normal circumstances a coach will call upon his starter to bounce back from a bad night, but Fleury has had so many over the past half decade that his leash may be short.

The alternative: rookie goaltender Zatkoff.

I’d expect Fleury to play Game 5. Even though he’s had postseason trouble over the years, he deserves another opportunity to redeem himself. However, if the doesn’t and the Penguins lose to the Blue Jackets, Fleury will be out of straws.