PITTSBURGH -- Is this Marc-Andre Fleury as Greek tragedy? Or the central figure in some grand Roman farce?
The best, most consistent player for the Pittsburgh Penguins four games into this unruly, helter-skelter first-round series against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets suddenly finds himself wearing the hockey equivalent of the hair shirt.
A lightning rod of discontent over the past four seasons, given his often uneven play in the postseason, Fleury now stands showered with doubt and questions about his mental toughness as the Penguins prepare to host the Blue Jackets in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series Saturday night.
Surrounded by reporters at his dressing room stall on Friday after a brisk workout by the team at its suburban Pittsburgh rink, Fleury was asked on several occasions about his decision to leave the Penguins' net in the waning moments of Game 4 and try to stop a shoot-in. The puck jumped over his stick and Brandon Dubinsky took a pass in the slot and fired it into the empty net to tie the game with 22.5 seconds left in regulation. The Blue Jackets won the game in overtime on a floating shot by Nick Foligno that didn't help matters.
After explaining his rationale for leaving the net on the equalizer -- he thought the puck was moving slowly enough to efficiently stop it -- Fleury asked everyone to move on.
"What's up with all this?" he said. "I thought it was the right play, I read it, the puck was slow and I thought we could get it out quick. That's why I went. No more. Please."
The criticism of Fleury is patently unfair, given the way his teammates have spent long periods of time not playing consistent playoff hockey around him in these four games. But it is also the stark reality that Fleury must put the disappointing ending to Game 4 in Columbus behind him. If he can't and the Pens somehow fall to the 7-seed Blue Jackets, it is hard to imagine this summer won't be one of seismic change in Pittsburgh.
In talking to former NHL netminder Kelly Hrudey about playoff goaltending in general, he noted the "demons" that Fleury is battling in this series. After almost four games when his play could hardly have been impeached, those demons are once again nipping at his blades.
A year ago, because of perceived poor play, the former No. 1 overall draft pick was replaced as the Penguins' playoff starter before Game 5 of their first-round series against the New York Islanders. Veteran Tomas Vokoun came in, got two wins to help the Penguins move on and eventually started every game through the loss to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.
That's not going to happen this season. Vokoun is still recovering from surgery to deal with a blood clotting issue and hasn't played in the NHL all season. Rookie Jeff Zatkoff is not a viable option.
The storyline for Game 4 was that the Penguins built a 3-0 lead in a span of 5:01 in the first period and then stumbled around, leaving Fleury to face shot after shot. Had the Penguins found a way to hang on for the win and to bring a 3-1 series lead home, Fleury would have been praised to the heavens. There would have been talk of redemption and renaissance.
Even after Fleury misplayed the puck behind the net, allowing the tying goal, had the Pens found a way to come up with the overtime winner, Fleury would still have come in for significant praise for keeping his team in the game -- again. It didn't turn out that way, of course, as Fleury misjudged a fluttering, floating Foligno wrist shot early in overtime, the series is tied and the Penguins face a collective crisis of confidence.
"He was our best player in the game ... and unfortunately a mistake, you know, the bouncing puck there behind the net, cost us in the last 30 seconds of the game," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "But he was our best player in the game. He has to rebound now from that, as does our team."
Pittsburgh forward James Neal agreed with the assessment that Fleury isn't the issue with a Penguins team that has lacked consistency throughout the series.
"Flower's the least of our worries right now," Neal said Friday. "He's been great for us all year, given us a chance to be in the position that we are here today. To a guy, we just need to do what we do and he'll be the player that got you here and we'll be fine."
While Blue Jackets fans cheered enthusiastically, even in the aftermath of a third straight Penguins goal in Game 4, rest assured the first sign of wobbles from Fleury and/or the rest of his teammates will bring a cascade of boos from the Consol Energy Center faithful on Saturday. That is the reality of expectations and the reality when a group that has delivered the goods in the past appears ready to fall short of those expectations again.