No questioning Fleury this season

A solitary ritual on the bench helps Marc-Andre Fleury get his thoughts in order before the puck drops. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Cat-like, Marc-Andre Fleury makes his way to the Pittsburgh Penguins' bench an hour or more before each start so he can be alone with his thoughts for a few minutes.

Well, he's not completely alone. He carries his goalie stick with him for this relatively new part of his pregame routine. Fleury tries to relax, thinks about the upcoming game, goes over how he wants to play. It's sort of a meditative pep talk, but he does not include his stick in the conversation.

"No, no," Fleury said, laughing. "I just feel lonely, so I want to have something [with me]. We don't talk that much. I talk more to the posts. Sometimes I bang on them, and sometimes they're good."

Fleury is goofy like that. He also is serious about his craft like that. A season of milestones is shaping up as a career year for Fleury, and while that has been a cause celebre, there is little question that there are critics lying in wait should the Pittsburgh goaltender falter, particularly in the playoffs.

A survey of social media, end-of-article reader comments, sports talk show calls and the like reveals that Fleury has taken a lot of blame for the Penguins' failure to win another Stanley Cup, or even return to the finals, following their 2009 championship. His playoff record since that Cup win is 21-22.

Certainly, there seems little to no room for harsh judgments this season. The Penguins are leading the Eastern Conference, and Fleury has been arguably their best and most consistent player, putting up Vezina-like numbers.

Coming out of the weekend, he ranked second in the NHL with 19 wins, fifth with a 1.97 goals-against average, tied for third with a .933 save percentage and first with six shutouts. He has already surpassed his career high for shutouts in a season and is one shy of tying Tom Barrasso's club record, and he is operating at a better pace than his career bests for a season of a .921 save percentage and 2.32 goals-against average.

On Nov. 24, a 27-save, 3-2 win against the Boston Bruins, Fleury became the third-youngest and third-fastest goalie to reach 300 career wins.

At least some of his critics might judge the 2003 first-overall draft pick as much on what they perceive as a lackadaisical personality as on his technique and statistics.

Fleury smiles. A lot. He's a jokester and a prankster. He once folded himself into the equipment bag of winger Colby Armstrong so he could give his then-teammate a startle. He was the mastermind of a plot to move every speck of furniture from two rookies' road hotel room into the hallway, as seen on HBO's "24/7" in 2010.

After a practice earlier this month, Fleury commandeered teammate Brandon Sutter's jockstrap -- took it right off the surprised man's body -- and crept behind a media scrum so he could place it on the shoulder of forward Bryan Rust, who was giving an interview after his first promotion to the NHL. He also openly embraces his longtime nickname, Flower, which relates to the English translation of his surname but doesn't necessarily elicit visions of a warrior.

Can a guy like that keep his head on straight when pucks are buzzing around him and coming from all angles during times as stressful as the playoffs?

"I could see where people could think that. He's always playing around and smiling," said Brent Johnson, who was Fleury's backup from 2009-12 and is one of 15 goalies who have shared the Penguins' crease with Fleury. "But he's serious about the game. He works his tail off in practice more than any No. 1 goalie I've ever seen."

Fleury's teammates are fiercely loyal to him, and first-year Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford -- a former NHL goaltender -- stemmed speculation that Fleury might be traded or allowed to become an unrestricted free agent next summer by signing him to a four-year, $23 million contract extension on Nov. 6 and proclaiming him the Penguins' No. 1 goalie for as long as Rutherford is with the club.

Fleury widely escaped blame last spring when a lack of offense seemed the culprit as the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the New York Rangers in the second round. Still, questions about Fleury's overall postseason play have stretched beyond the fan level. After Fleury was replaced by backup Tomas Vokoun during the first round of the 2013 playoffs, the former Penguins regime asked Fleury to meet with a sports psychologist that summer.

Fleury remains reluctant to talk about those sessions, but did divulge that one takeaway was the mental exercise of using a key word. Sports psychologist Shane Murphy did not treat Fleury, but he's familiar with the practice of using trigger words.

"As human beings, when we're stressed we have a problem with little voices in our heads -- you get distracted," said Murphy, a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State, a sports psychologist for 30 years and former head sports psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee. "Trigger words, key words can help the mind focus on one or two things at a time. They are a way of focusing, little reminders that work to help you get back in the moment."

Fleury hasn't identified what his trigger word is, or even whether it's English or his native French. With him, it's probably a viable question whether the word could be classified as serious, silly or vulgar. Fleury believes strongly in the power of balance, both with his personality and in the tangible, physical sense.

"It doesn't mean because you're having fun you're not working hard, right?" he said. "I think I play good when I'm having fun, smiling, relaxed. That's when I know I feel better. I'm not going to try to be somebody else. I can go work hard. I try hard to stop the puck.

"You don't want to chase the puck too much. Just try to relax. Enjoy playing the game. Enjoy making saves. Don't think too much. Just go play."

Defenseman Rob Scuderi -- a member of that 2009 Cup team who left to spend four years in Los Angeles (and win another Cup) before returning to Pittsburgh before last season -- has been struck by Fleury's sense of calm.

"Certainly, he's just more mature," Scuderi said. "Just kind of handles himself more like a professional. Sometimes, when you're younger, there are peaks and valleys. You have a great game and you get super high, and then you get super low.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury

#29 G
Pittsburgh Penguins

2014-15 STATS

  • GM25
  • W19

  • L4

  • T0

  • SV%.933

  • GAA1.97

"I think for him now, if he lets in a goal, he's not happy about it -- he never is -- but he can put it past him and just focus on the next [shot]. For a goalie, that's probably the most important trait you can have."

Fleury's maturity might also be measured by age -- he turned 30 on Nov. 28 -- and by his family circumstance.

He and his wife, Veronique, have a 20-month-old daughter, Estelle. Away from the rink, Fleury says he and his wife might have a date night, perhaps dinner and a movie. He spends time playing with Estelle, who loves her toy Elmo. Estelle also has been introduced to hockey, with her dad saying he works up a decent sweat as she shoots and he chases. So much for relaxing in his down time.

Fleury likes a heavy workload on the job, too. He is on pace to start 63 games. He has appeared in between 62 and 67 games most seasons.

Former Pittsburgh coach, general manager and executive Eddie Johnston still attends a lot of games and some practices. He was the last NHL goalie to play every minute of every game in a season, for the 1963-64 Bruins, and knows something about goalkeepers. Johnston knows of no rule that says a goalie must be all business or show outbursts of anger and frustration if he wants to win multiple Cups.

"There's no question he's got so much confidence. He's feeling good about himself. Plus, he's always had a great attitude," Johnston said of Fleury. "A lot of times between periods you might voice your opinion a little bit, but he's a rare guy because he's a very competitive guy, but he stays low-key. He doesn't have ups and downs.

"He stays pretty well level all the time, which is very good for the team."