The Pittsburgh Penguins were projected to have a long run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. At the least, the Penguins were supposed to breeze by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had only been to the Stanley Cup playoffs one other time and got swept. But as Game 5 nears on April 26 and Pittsburgh and Columbus are inexplicably tied at 2-2, all eyes are on Marc-Andre Fleury to right the ship in at least one playoff series.
No lead has been safe in this series, which has hardly been a showcase for Fleury or Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Yet Fleury helped bring about the biggest collapse of the series in Game 4 on April 23. The Penguins had a 3-0 lead and 2-1 series lead, looking all set to cruise to a five-game first round win as expected -- until Fleury misplayed a puck behind the net in the final seconds of regulation.
The good Fleury kept the Penguins up by 3-2 before that play, as he finished with 42 saves. But the bad Fleury made that gaffe when it really counted, leading to Brandon Dubinsky tying the score and sending Game 4 to overtime. When the Blue Jackets got new life, they didn't cough it up, as Nick Foligno launched a long shot that Fleury was clueless on.
This is the worst nightmare for the Penguins in seemingly every stint in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Fleury is the symbol of Pittsburgh's postseason luck in the Sidney Crosby era, as he and the team flew high in their first three playoffs together. But ever since winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, Fleury and the team have flamed out of every successive postseason in spectacular fashion.
Being knocked out by a Blue Jackets team that previously never won a playoff game -- and was already on life support in this series -- would be the worst collapse to date. It may finally be the one that makes Pittsburgh lose faith and patience in Fleury, despite his eight years of success. Yet in every postseason, he has been the ultimate hit or miss goaltender.
The accompanying list details the highs and lows of Fleury's Stanley Cup playoff history, and that of the Penguins in general since 2007. Will this sudden dogfight with the Blue Jackets become a high point after all, or become the biggest letdown of them all?
Fleury's short playoff debut
2007 first round: The first postseason for Fleury, and for the Penguins in the Sidney Crosby era, was a blip in the road as the Penguins fell to the future conference champion Ottawa Senators in five games. Given how bright the future looked, there wasn't much cause for concern.
Fleury's Stanley Cup finals debut
2008 Stanley Cup finals: The Penguins took a big, quick leap to the Stanley Cup finals, yet fell short to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. But the defining game of the series was Fleury's career best performance in Game 5, as he stopped 55 shots over three overtimes and made a Game 6 in Pittsburgh possible for the Penguins.
Fleury, Penguins are champions
2009 Stanley Cup finals: The third time for the Penguins, and second time against the Red Wings in the Cup finals, was the charm. Fleury entered immortality in Pittsburgh by handcuffing Detroit in Games 6 and 7, taking the first of what looked like many Stanley Cups to come for the Penguins.
Game 7 upset loss
2010 second round loss: All seemed clear for the Penguins to repeat in 2010, until they met the upset minded Canadiens in the second round. Fleury couldn't even make it out of Game 7, as four quick Montreal goals got him pulled and got Pittsburgh eliminated.
Another Game 7 upset at home
2011 first round: Fleury technically did better in his next Game 7, as he only gave up one goal to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the Penguins got no goals -- and wouldn't have had to play a Game 7 if Fleury hadn't yielded a 3-1 series lead, as well as 12 combined goals in Games 5 and 6.
Fleury torched by Flyers
2012 first round: The series that cemented Fleury's new reputation as a playoff choker, as the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers had virtually no defense to speak of in six games. But Fleury gave up soft goal after soft goal, becoming a joke by the time the Flyers blew him out one last time in Game 6.
Fleury cannot survive first round
2013 first round: The lowly New York Islanders had their way with Fleury through four games of round 1, causing the Penguins to turn to backup Tomas Vokoun to save them. Not only did Vokoun do the job, he kept it throughout the rest of the playoffs -- although no goalie could have saved Pittsburgh against the Boston Bruins in the conference finals.
More opening round trouble
2014 first round: After the way Fleury coughed up a 3-0 lead in Game 4 against the Blue Jackets, especially with his misplay on the late goal that forced overtime, it wouldn't have been a shock if he got benched for the second first round in a row. But without Vokoun or any better options, the Penguins have to cross their fingers for Fleury to save them this time.