Marc-Andre Fleury isn't the first player to make a mistake that cost his team a chance to win a title, and he won't be the last.
Fleury's clearing attempt that hit a teammate and bounced back into the net, resulting in the game winner for Team USA in the gold-medal game of the World Junior Championship, happened on such a huge stage that it will be examined and criticized by Canadians for many years to come. Unfortunately for Fleury, it was his last chance to participate in the most underrated sports tournament in the world, so he won't have a chance to prove himself again at that level.
But that was Monday.
Today the question is: how will he respond?
If he has the kind of character we all think he has, the experience will make him a stronger competitor. There's not a goalie out there who hasn't had to deal with adversity. There isn't a magic carpet that lifts you above everything and takes you to the Hall of Fame. There are complications along the way. Ask Steve Smith about shooting the puck into his own net off the leg of Grant Fuhr against the hated Calgary Flames in 1986. Smitty woke up the next day and life went on. Ask Patrick Roy about his "Statue of Liberty" gaffe against the Red Wings in Game 6 of the 2002 conference final. There are so many examples we can use. Fleury will get off the mat and battle through this. If not, his development will take a huge step back.
After a brief trip home to Montreal, Fleury is expected to rejoin the Penguins, which is good. Sending him back to his major junior team (the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in Nova Scotia) to face the masses is too much for him to handle on his own just yet. There is simply too much scrutiny. He should work with Molleken in practice, go over some tapes to give him a positive foundation, and play in some games. Then, if it's decided that he should return to Cape Breton for their playoff run and a chance at redeeming himself by winning the Memorial Cup, then sending him back would make sense.
When I was watching the World Junior Championship, I noticed Fleury seemed to have too many moving body parts. He wasn't tight when moving side to side and he opened himself up an awful lot. Canada was dominant in it's first five games, so Fleury rarely got tested and wasn't able to get on a roll. It showed when he encountered sustained offensive pressure, even before the game-winning goal.
It's back to basics for the Penguins' goalie of the future. My guess is that this kid bounces back, lifts his head up and shows everyone why he was the first overall pick last summer.
At the other end of the ice
Team USA goaltender Al Montoya, who was named the tournament's top goalie, will be at least a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft. The Michigan sophomore made a key glove save on Sidney Crosby two minutes into the third period. Had Crosby scored, it would have been a 4-1 game and in all likelihood would have taken the will out of the Americans. Instead, he made that save and another one on Ryan Getzlaf, just before Patrick O'Sullivan scored to make it 3-2. Those are game-breaking saves and proves he has the mental strength to stay in games regardless of the score. I actually thought the U.S. wouldn't be strong enough or deep enough to beat the Canadians based on the tough time the USA had with the Finns and Canada's dominance of the Czech Republic in the semifinals. Montoya kept the U.S. squad in the game against the Finns and got stronger in the third period against the Canadians to give his country a chance to win. He will be a terrific pro, and I am positive he will also have to battle the hockey gods along the way, just as Fleury will have to.
In other NHL news ...
... St. Louis Blues star defenseman Al MacInnis and I were talking Monday about his future. He will see his doctor this week in hopes of being measured for a corrective contact lens. He had his left lens removed in a previous operation, so he has no vision in that eye. He remains months way from even making a decision about his future. Until then, he will continue to coach his two sons in minor hockey in St. Louis and continue to hope that the Penguins send Fleury back to Cape Breton. Afterall, as part owner of the Screaming Eagles, MacInnis knows they have a chance to win it all.
Darren Pang, a former goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. His goalie rankings appear every other week in Net Effect.