PITTSBURGH – Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury knows the critics will always be there.
If his play in the Penguins’ recent Eastern Conference playoff series is any indication, he doesn’t seem to mind.
Fleury passed his confidence test with flying colors, winning his first postseason series in four years as Pittsburgh beat Columbus in six games.
He hopes the ride continues as the Penguins prepare for a second-round showdown with the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers.
“It was definitely a great feeling,” Fleury said after practice Wednesday. “It’s been awhile.”
It certainly has been for Fleury, the franchise’s career wins leader who has struggled in the postseason since helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009.
He helped Pittsburgh make it to the second round in 2010, but was in net for first-round flameouts in 2011 and 2012 then lost his job to journeyman Tomas Vokoun last spring.
Fleury regrouped during the offseason and his steady performance against the Blue Jackets helped the Penguins avoid a major upset.
“Unless you win the Cup, there will always be critics no matter what, even if he does win the Cup,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “I think where his focus is, and the way he’s handled this year, this first round is big for him to get through and hopefully we ride that and keep going.”
Fleury carried a confident, relaxed demeanor into the series with the Blue Jackets. The approach worked against an upstart Columbus team that proved to be a tougher test than most expected.
“I was looking forward to getting back into it, playing some games and winning some games,” Fleury said. “Even though we lost a couple, I stayed calm, just forgot about it quick and moved on.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Fleury has won 35 or more games the past five full regular seasons, but faltered in the playoffs. He carried a sub-.900 post-season save percentage since winning the Cup and his goals-against average ballooned above 3.50 the past two seasons.
It reached a breaking point when Fleury was benched during Pittsburgh’s run to the conference finals last year and saw a sports psychologist to address his mental approach during the offseason.
The results showed against Columbus after Fleury finished the series 4-2 with a 2.81 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.
“I think he’s a little more mature,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “I think he’s able to put bad games behind him a little faster now. That’s always positive because you’re going to have a bad outing every once in a while. The odds are against you to have a perfect game every single night.”
Fleury’s biggest test against Columbus came in Game 5 when he was forced to rebound from a game-changing gaffe in Game 4 that evened the series.
The Penguins were seconds away from taking a 3-1 lead during the best-of-seven series when Fleury misplayed a puck behind the net.
It led to Brandon Dubinsky’s tying goal. Nick Foligno’s innocent-looking wrist shot from the blue line evaded Fleury just 2:49 into overtime, tying the series. He responded in Game 5 with a sparkling 23-save effort that gave the Penguins a 3-2 edge.
“Game 4, I think, was something that probably, mentally was as tough as I ever saw him,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
“He shrugged it off pretty easily. It would’ve been easy to think about that a lot more and he didn’t. He showed a lot of leadership and a lot of character and was big for us all series long.”
Coach Dan Bylsma called it a response series for Fleury and his team.
“It’s not necessarily about the numbers or how many saves he made,” Bylsma said. “He responded and responded in a big way for our team.”
Forwards Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale, who left Pittsburgh’s win in Game 6 with undisclosed injuries, practiced on Wednesday. ... D Brooks Orpik (undisclosed), who missed the final two games of the series, did not practice.