Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save against the Washington Capitals in the first period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — As if Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't under enough pressure going into Game 7 against the Capitals, the Penguins didn't just ask the goaltender to stand on his head but look over his shoulder.
The presence of Matt Murray at the morning skate made it clear the Penguins had another Stanley Cup-champion goalie at the ready if Fleury faltered in the deciding game of this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
After giving up nine goals in the previous two games, Fleury was nothing short of phenomenal in securing a shutout in the Penguins' 2-0 victory Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
Yes, a shutout.
Fleury was unflappable in making 29 saves, matching his jersey number and continuing the Capitals' curse of coming up short against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Where Fleury was instrumental in Game 7 victories against the Capitals and Detroit Red Wings in the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup championship in 2009, his more recent memories of Game 7s were losses to Montreal in '10, Tampa Bay in '11 and the New York Rangers in '14.
After watching much of the Cup run last year from the bench before reclaiming his starting job when Murray was injured in pre-game warmups against Columbus, Fleury silenced his critics.
“What I'm saying is maybe I don't listen to the distractions,” said Fleury, who also closed out the Blue Jackets after allowing nine goals in Games 3 and 4.
“After those two games in Columbus, there was a good game after that, right? We won it. I wasn't too worried. In the playoffs, you're not always perfect. If it's 5-nothing or 1-nothing, it's still a loss or a win. I just forget about it and move on. I don't care. I just want to play, have fun and win some games.”
The Penguins are moving on to the Eastern Conference final, thanks in large part to Fleury's fantastic play in net.
He stopped 211 of 229 shots (.921 save percentage) in seven games, some in spectacular fashion.
“We're not in this position, moving on, if he doesn't play the way he did,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “There were times when they had sustained pressure throughout games and he made some good saves to stay in the game and allowed us to stay patient. He was huge for us all series long.”
Once again, Fleury had a memorable save against Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. In '09, it was a glove save on an Ovechkin breakaway. This time, with the Penguins clinging to a 1-0 lead late in the second period, Ovechkin took a pass from Tom Wilson in the slot and fired a one-timer from his knee at Fleury.
Fleury pushed to his right, the puck catching the shaft of his stick in a save that showed luck would be on his side. In true Fleury fashion, goaltender thanked his stick, stroking it with his hand.
“I was talking to stick, maybe,” Fleury said, with a smile. “I said, ‘Good job, and thank you.' ”
The Penguins said the same to the veteran goalie after he stopped eight shots in the first period and 15 in the second.
The Capitals came out firing on Fleury, and he turned away shot after shot. After four, Capitals fans were taunting Fleury, chanting his name. He responded with a veteran move, stopping the Capitals' momentum and essentially stealing a timeout by going to the bench to have his skate checked at 2 minutes, 19 seconds.
The momentum changed, as Fleury continued to make big saves. The next came when Evgeny Kuznetsov dropped a backhand pass into the slot for Marcus Johansson, whose shot was stopped by first by Fleury and then a diving save to cover the loose puck.
“I think Flower played well all series,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He made some real timely saves in the second period, at the end of the second period, when Washington made a push. That's what it takes to win. At this time of year, that's what it takes to win championships.
“This guy is a battle-tested guy.”
One who, on this night, was head and shoulders above the Capitals.