EXTREME MAKEOVER, NHL Edition: The long and ultimately colorless story of Marc-André Fleury's transformation—the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie was flashing a high-wattage smile and a sparkling .940 playoff save percentage through Sunday—began last autumn in the Ottawa home of Janet Leduc. Although a committed Senators fan, Leduc is foremost an optometrist. (As you are no doubt aware, there is no eye in team.) After being driven to distraction for years while watching Fleury flash his trademark taxicab-yellow pads on TV, Leduc permitted professional judgment to supersede hometown loyalty and said enough was enough, much as Fleury did last Friday when he shut down the Philadelphia Flyers 4--2 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals after allowing two first-period goals. In November, Leduc sent letters to the Penguins' owners, coaches and general manager Ray Shero, explaining that yellow is the color most easily distinguished by the human eye—a nifty graph was enclosed—and recommended that their goalie switch to white pads to better blend with the ice and end boards. As Leduc said by telephone recently, "If there were a sniper walking around, I wouldn't be dressing in yellow. It's too visible. That's why the Golden Arches are yellow, why school buses are yellow." Shero passed on his copy of the letter to head athletic trainer Chris Stewart, who, in December, showed it to Fleury.
The missive arrived at the ideal time. "I was bored," Fleury says. Instead of getting a tattoo or pink highlights like other bored people his age, Fleury, 23, then early in what would be an almost three-month rehabilitation for a high-ankle sprain, decided to request a set of pads in white, with only a sliver of Penguins gold. The color is a fashion solecism after Labor Day for everybody except goalies, many of whom are convinced it makes them look bigger. ("Every woman knows that," says Leduc. "Go to a party and try to find a woman in a white dress. That's why we all have black dresses.") When Fleury made his first rehab start with the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, his legs were draped in virginal Reebok white. After he stopped 30 of 31 shots to get the win, he was sold on his new look, although he hedged by traveling the minors with his old yellers. Dressed in the white pads when he returned to the NHL in late February—they did make him look bigger, his Penguins teammates agreed—Fleury had a .947 save percentage, yielded an average of 1.53 goals per game and won 10 of 13 starts over the rest of the regular season, then prevailed in 10 of his first 11 in the playoffs after a 4--2 win in Game 2 on Sunday.
So, Dr. Leduc, we get the stuff about white making it difficult for shooters to distinguish a goalie's pads in traffic, but can you explain why wearing it also makes you a better puckhandler?
SEVEN MINUTES into the first period of hockey's Pennsylvania primary—think Obama versus Clinton, only with crosschecks and face washes—Flyers forward Mike Knuble was bearing down on the puck just to the left and rear of the Pittsburgh crease. Fleury took two strides behind the net, corralled the puck, looked off the intruder and then switched to his backhand, rimming a 10-footer to a defenseman to start a Pittsburgh breakout. For a puck-moving maestro like, say, the Dallas Stars' Marty Turco, this pass would have fallen at the midpoint of the spectrum between ho and hum, but for Fleury, who used to treat the puck as if it had cooties, his élan in making the play was wondrous.
Ignore for a moment the cosmetic pad change. The essence of this makeover is the guts of Fleury's game, which has evolved dramatically since he returned from his ankle injury. "It's almost like two different goalies the way he's playing now," Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar says. "He's much more comfortable." The difference is as stark as black and, well, you know.
Fleury has always has been a dervish in net, boasting hockey's quickest legs when he entered the NHL in 2003--04. In the crease he was like a duck whose legs were paddling furiously beneath the water's surface, churning constantly and often uselessly. Fleury is still nimble—midway through the second period of Game 1 he read a tricky bounce and butterflied swiftly to make a pad save on an attempted stuff-in by Philadelphia's R.J. Umberger—but now he usually waits for a shot to find him, rarely taking himself out of position to make a stop. "Sometimes he'd get there too quick and sort of slide by the shot," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik says. "He used to make the first save and be out of position."
If Fleury now makes saves by letting the puck come to him, he also has started going to the puck when he has an opportunity to play it with his stick. You've heard of stay-at-home defensemen? Fleury was a stay-at-home goalie. In the five-game thrashing that Ottawa gave the Penguins in the first round of last year's playoffs, Fleury looked like he was tethered to his net. Like a running back failing to pick up the blitz, Fleury was making his defensemen vulnerable by not intercepting pucks and thus not relieving the pressure from the Senators' furious forecheck. Ottawa would angle dump-ins to the corner to Fleury's right, obliging the gaggle of Pittsburgh defensemen with lefthanded shots to play the puck on their backhands while being mashed into the glass. Fleury was mostly a bystander to the carnage, although hardly innocent.
But as they might say in the optometry business, there was more to Fleury's reticence in handling the puck than meets the eye. There was a sad, almost secret backstory. Late in the 2004 World Junior Championships final against the U.S., Fleury came out to pokecheck Patrick O'Sullivan, who was hurtling in on a breakaway. The goalie played the puck, but it struck teammate Braydon Coburn in the back of the leg and caromed into the net for the Americans' winning goal, a Bucknerian moment in Canadian junior hockey history. As Fleury sat shirtless in a trainer's room earlier this postseason, his omnipresent smile dimmed. "I just didn't want to make mistakes anymore after that [goal]," he said. "I decided I would just focus on stopping [the puck], not worry about making plays; I didn't want to mess up again."
Forget Dr. Leduc. Paging Dr. Freud.
FLEURY NEEDED time, and coaching, to heal the pain. Often he has not received the support he deserved from an organization that drafted him at No. 1 in 2003—the formerly cash-strapped franchise didn't even have a full-time goalie coach until Gilles Meloche, then a Penguins scout and goalie consultant, took the job two years ago—but now help has come from all directions. Meloche has drilled Fleury on the nuances of the position and injected more poise. And, blessedly, backup netminder Ty Conklin is a capable puck mover. Fleury improved during his injury hiatus simply by observing Conklin and pestering him for tips.
After Meloche instructed Fleury to move three feet closer to the goal when the opposing team crossed the red line, the goalie also found the time to go behind the net to settle the puck or move it to a forward. "Now I have an extra second to pick my head up, look and make a play," Fleury said. "Before it was play it right away and hurry back to my net." With this element added to his recommitment to the pokecheck—"Like a boxer. Jabbing, you know?" he said after aborting an Umberger breakaway with his quick stick in Game 1—Fleury has metamorphosed from a twitchy, inconsistent goalie into a dependable netminder, Pittsburgh's white knight.
You've heard of a stay-at-home defenseman? Fleury was a STAY-AT-HOME GOALIE. "I didn't want to mess up," he says.
Like Him Now?
With a spotless postseason run, Detroit's Chris Osgood was erasing the notion that he was the worst goalie to win a Cup
LIKE AN air traffic controller or Britney Spears's publicist, Detroit Red Wings goaltender traditionally has been among America's most thankless jobs—a fact not lost on incumbent Chris Osgood. The 35-year-old Osgood, who stoned the Dallas Stars 2--1 in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals last Saturday, has been a Red Wing long enough to know that in Detroit, skaters win Stanley Cups and goalies lose them. He shrugs at the skewed logic. "That's changing," says Osgood, who improved to 8--0 since relieving Dominik Hasek during the first round against Nashville. "I think people realize now that we win and lose as a team."
Osgood has been perceived as the worst goalie to backstop a Cup champion, which raises this possibility: In June will he be dismissed as the worst goalie to lead a team to two Cups? The thought is as absurd as the original conceit that Osgood was just along for the ride with the title-winning 1998 Red Wings when he put up a 2.12 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in the playoffs. In 13 seasons, 10 with Detroit, Osgood has won 363 regular-season games (15th alltime) and 53 in the playoffs through Sunday. His regular-season winning percentage of .631 ranks first among the top 20 goalies in career wins. "Toss out those numbers without a name, add the Cup, and 80 percent of people would say that's near Hall of Fame credentials," Detroit winger Darren McCarty says. "Then say it's Ozzie, and the number'll drop to 50 percent. Or less."
The negativity can be blamed on some of Osgood's memorable low points, starting in 1994 when he was left sobbing at his locker after his giveaway led to a shocking series-winning third-period goal by San Jose's Jamie Baker in Game 7 of the first round. Other dodgy goals followed, notably Jamie Langenbrunner's overtime shot from a different zip code in Game 5 of the '98 conference final in Dallas. Forgotten is Osgood's shutout that eliminated the Stars in Game 6.
Yet Detroit thought it needed an upgrade and, in 2001, acquired Hasek and waived Osgood, who was picked up by the Islanders. Osgood helped New York, and then St. Louis (2003--04), reach the playoffs, but he returned to Detroit in August 2005 a new man. During the '04--05 lockout Osgood reinvented his style, a remarkable act by a 300-win goalie of whom Wings G.M. Ken Holland says, "He was an NHL goalie who had high school technical skills." Osgood introduced some butterfly into his repertoire and improved his speed. The stream of pucks that once leaked through him slowed to a trickle.
While the old Ozzie—baseball cap tugged down, eyes averted—has receded beneath a calm and confident demeanor, so has the hoary notion that he is a mere passenger on the Detroit bandwagon. "Not his fault we have a good team," goalie coach Jim Bedard says. Cocooned by a puck-moving, rebound-clearing defense that allowed 21 shots or fewer in six of his first eight playoff starts this spring, Osgood keeps inching from mockery toward belated stardom. "I don't brag about myself," he says. "I don't have to be a star. I just want to be part of the Red Wings." The now great and powerful Oz has spoken.
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Photograph by Lou Capozzola
ON THE MARC With 30 saves and the help of a key goal by Maxime Talbot (above, left) on Sunday night, Fleury gave Pittsburgh a 2--0 series lead over Philadelphia.
Photograph by Lou Capozzola
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO
STAND-UP GUY Well, sometimes. Osgood helped himself by mixing in some butterfly.
Photograph by Lou Capozzola
STICKWORK With Fleury handling the puck more, teammates have been spared the beating that they took last postseason.