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Penguins send Fleury to minors to experience playoffs

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins will send their former
No. 1 draft pick back to the minors on Wednesday, and it has
nothing to do with the quality of his play or their latest
last-place finish.

And, no, it is not Sidney Crosby.
NHL teams rarely make their starting goalies go down to the
minors when the season ends, but the Penguins will do that by
sending Marc-Andre Fleury -- the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft -- to
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the team's first AHL playoff game
Thursday night.
Fleury, 21, has been the Penguins' primary starter in goal since
Jocelyn Thibault was injured early in the season and played in 49
NHL games this season. While his statistics don't look all that
good -- he is No. 39 in the league in goals-against average (3.28)
and No. 31 in save percentage (.897) -- the Penguins don't think
they reflect how much he has improved.
Despite playing for a team that lost its first nine games and
was never in contention after that, Fleury has made steady and
discernible progress. Playing nearly every game after the Olympics
break against contenders, he went 6-6-1 in his last 13 starts,
winning his final two. He allowed three goals or fewer in nine
games, even though the Penguins were one of the NHL's worst
defensive teams all season.
"We were supposed to be a very good team, and in the playoffs
and everything, so it's been a little bit tough to be losing,"
Fleury said. "But I think we got better as a team. We have played
teams that are in the playoffs and are doing pretty well, so I
think that is a good thing."
He has not yet reached the level of a Martin Brodeur or Patrick
Roy, but he's much better than the raw 18-year-old who was the
Penguins' starter early in the 2003-04 season. The most telling
evidence: in a recent five-game stretch against top-tier teams, he
stopped 145 of 155 shots.
"It's been not all bad," Fleury said. "The main thing is I
had a chance to play a lot of games. It was good to be here almost
all year. Because I'm still young and I've been able to play a lot,
it was good experience for me."
What the Penguins want him to experience now is the playoffs --
something they haven't been involved in themselves since 2001. One
reason is because Fleury has not played at a level expected of a
No. 1 pick in prior tournament play.
In 2004, his own clearing pass banked off a teammate's back and
into the net to help the United States upset Canada in the world
junior championships gold-medal game. That year, after playing 21
games in the NHL, he had only a 1-3 record as his Quebec major
junior team was upset in the first round of its playoffs.
A year ago, he was benched in the AHL playoffs after going 0-2
with a 4.36 goals-against average. He has been told he will play
this spring, even though Wilkes-Barre's Danny Sabourin was arguably
the league's best goalie during the season.
"I think it's too early to be finished playing hockey," Fleury
said before the Penguins ended their season Tuesday night in
Toronto. "I have a chance to go play for a good team, and I think
going into the playoffs will be fun. Hopefully, it will be good and
hopefully we will be able to win lots of games."
The Penguins want him to go down and experience the playoffs
again, coach Michel Therrien said, "Because he is still developing
as a player."
Only now he doesn't need as much polishing as before.
"It's been tough because we lost, but I thought this year was
good for me," Fleury said. "I had a couple of bad games, but
maybe less than I used to, last year or the year before. Maybe I've
been more consistent and had more better games, and that was
good."