Hockey

Tim Wharnsby - Monday Dec. 2, 2013 16:27 ET

Marc-Andre Fleury fine-tunes his game in Olympic year

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie was No. 3 man in Vancouver

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Marc-Andre Fleury needs to rebound from a string of playoff disappointments to prove he belongs on Team Canada. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Marc-Andre Fleury is determined to bloom again and, for the most part, he has flourished in this critical season for him. But it’s still early.

The Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, nicknamed the Flower, has wilted in the past four years. He won a Stanley Cup in 2009. He was the third-string goalie on the Canadian Olympic team and was along for golden ride in February 2010. 

But after a fourth straight post-season flameout last spring, Fleury’s career was in flux.

He wasn’t even among the five goalies invited to the Canadian Olympic team orientation camp in Calgary last August.

After the Boston Bruins swept the Penguins in the East final last spring, questions abounded. Would Fleury be traded? Would the final two years of his contract that $10-million (US) remaining be bought out? 

Could he ever regain that form he exhibited when he made those crucial stops on Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom in the dying seconds to preserve the Penguins Stanley Cup-clinching win in Detroit in 2009?

Mental toughness

Fleury didn’t need an extreme makeover, but his game required renovations. So the Penguins brass urged its goalie to visit with a sports psychologist. A new goalie coach was hired in 42-year-old Mike Bales, who played briefly in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators and Boston.

Fleury doesn’t like to talk the sports psychologist stuff. He calls the sessions “another tool” for him to get better. He met with Bales over lunch in Montreal in the summer and so far the new set of eyes and a new voice has put Fleury on the road to recovery.

The two publicly don’t discuss specific changes. Bales has said he’s made suggestions. There has been plenty of dialogue between the two.

Fleury has 14 wins so far. He has finished 22 of the 23 starts he has made, but has cooled since a hot start. There was hiccup was when he was pulled in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 27, but he responded two nights later with a 21-save shutout against the Tampa Bay Lighting, his league-leading third of the season.

“Sometimes I shake my head at the things I read [about Fleury],” Penguins veteran forward Craig Adams told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “This guy's a champion. He's a great teammate. I'm happy for him. He played awesome.

“I don't think it means as much as you might think. We've had confidence and will have confidence in Flower.”

Post-season woes

You can’t blame people for doubting Fleury after his recent playoff failings.

• In 2010, he could not lead Pittsburgh past the upstart Montreal Canadiens in the second round.
• In 2011, with his Penguins up 3-1, he could not stem the Lightning’s opening-round come-from-behind win to take the series in seven games.
• In 2012, the Flyers scored often on Fleury in their first-round, six-game victory over Pittsburgh.
• Last year, he was replaced by Tomas Vokoun after four games in the opening-round series versus the New York Islanders.

Vokoun, Fleury's backup, has been absent through the first two months of this season because he has been felled by blood clots and this has added to the pressure for Fleury to find his game. 

“I believe Marc-Andre Fleury is a very good goalie,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think he's proven that time and time again.”

The 29-year-old Fleury, whose wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, last April, still is a longshot to make the Canadian Olympic team roster. He can pile up all the victories and shutouts he wants to in the regular season, but he needs some postseason success to win back the confidence of the fans in Pittsburgh and the Canadian Olympic team brass.

"I think I've been getting more consistent through the years, and that's a big thing I wanted to improve," Fleury told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That's good, but, at the end of the day, what people remember is the playoffs. That's where you make a name for yourself."

Canadian Olympic Goalies

Each week, we rank the top contenders for the three goalkeeper spots on the Canadian Olympic team based on their play to date:

1. Corey Crawford (Chicago) - The Stanley Cup winner has a four-game win streak and has stopped 110 of 116 shots during this stretch.

2. Carey Price (Montreal) - He also has four wins in a row with only seven goals against during this impressive run.

3. Josh Harding (Minnesota) - The long shot returned from his leg injury yet, despite yielding only four goals in two games, he lost both starts - the second in a shootout.

4. Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh) - He struggled against the Toronto Maple Leafs last Wednesday, then battled back for a 21-save shutout two nights later against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

5. Braden Holtby (Washington) - After a slow start, Holtby now has 12 wins and has his save percentage up to .925. 

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