NEW YORK – Before this Eastern Conference semifinal series, the one spot where the New York Rangers seemingly had a clear advantage over the Pittsburgh Penguins was in goal with Henrik Lundqvist.
The King has been good for three games, but Penguins counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury has gone from shaky question mark to star of the series with shutouts on consecutive days.
Suddenly Pittsburgh is dominating all over the ice, and its 2-1 series edge feels a whole lot wider.
“He is 10 out of 10,” defenseman Kris Letang said Tuesday. “For the guys in the dressing room, Flower has always been our go-to guy that shows up every night and gives us a chance to win.
“Since the playoffs began, he has been our best player.”
Letang is hardly alone in that assessment.
Since a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1, Fleury has been perfect. He stopped 22 shots in Pittsburgh’s 3-0 home win in Game 2 on Sunday and followed that with a stellar 35-save performance in the Penguins’ 2-0 victory at Madison Square Garden Monday.
“I felt good out there. Confident,” Fleury said. “We didn’t want to give them much, and we didn’t.”
Forget about the guy who faces constant criticism, or the one who seemed to be crashing and burning during the first round against Columbus when no leads were safe.
Through it all, Fleury – the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft and a Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins in 2009 – keeps bouncing back.
“I have won a lot of hockey games with Marc-Andre Fleury in net,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “There are questions from when he was 17, 18, whatever. They have been asking those questions for a long time, and he has done nothing but answer those questions.”
That wasn’t the case a year ago when Fleury had a miserable first-round series against the New York Islanders and lost his starting job to veteran Tomas Vokoun.
Vokoun went 6-1 after taking over and led the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals, where they were swept by the Boston Bruins.
After a summer away from it all, and time with a sports psychologist, Fleury regained his starting spot. Now he is the biggest reason the Penguins are two wins away from a return trip to the conference finals.
“To see your goalie confident like that, on top of his game, you see everyone is calm,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whose first goal of the playoffs made it 1-0 in Game 3. “(The Rangers) get a chance, he makes a save, and we move on.”
Bylsma has a theory about how Fleury is able to shake off the naysayers.
“Right now, it’s from a lot of practice,” he said. “Questions have been asked for 100 days in a row. He knows the answer only comes on the ice and winning hockey games.”
Lundqvist has been sharp for the Rangers in the three games against Pittsburgh, but has just one win to show for it. The Penguins attacked him in waves in Game 2, and Lundqvist’s play was the sole reason the Rangers trailed only 1-0 in the third period.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault relayed a scouting report given by former Penguins star and current team owner Mario Lemieux to current Rangers assistant coach – and former teammate – Ulf Samuelsson.
“Like Mario Lemieux told Ulfie yesterday, anything Fleury can catch he will catch,” Vigneault said Tuesday during a conference call. “Maybe if we stay away from that middle a little bit, our chances might become better.”
Anything is worth a try. The Rangers hadn’t been shut out in consecutive playoff games since the 1937 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit.
“(Fleury) has been pretty much great from when we first started the season,” Penguins forward Brandon Sutter said. “Last year he obviously faced a lot of postseason critics. He is kind of the same old guy that is pretty goofy, pretty loose around the room. I think that helps him with dealing with all the pressure. He just goes out and plays.
“We’re up 2-1 now because our goalie probably stole one for us. We need that this time of year. It’s not always going to be pretty.”
While the Penguins held an optional practice, Vigneault gave his players a full day off. They needed it after a stretch of five playoff games in seven days. Game 4 is Wednesday.
“We know it’s a challenge. We know it will take our best game. That’s what we’re trying to put on the ice,” Vigneault said. “I don’t sense at all any frustration on our part.”