Suddenly, hockey excitement in Pittsburgh is palpable: Even my spinning instructor recently asked what time the Penguins were playing that night. When the bandwagon fills up this fast, it can mean only one thing: This is a team with a real shot.
The gang that couldn't shoot straight in shoot-outs has turned into the team that does not lose overtime games. The Pens have been creeping up in the standings and serving notice to the Power Ranking gurus, who I imagine sit around in their underwear with a case of Labatt's, rating teams based on talent, record and, one hopes, intangibles like tenacity, chemistry and artistic brilliance. (Although ESPN.com's NHL editor, Joy Russo, could not confirm that underpants and Canadian beer are involved in the process, the Pens are currently listed as No. 2, behind Buffalo.)
Even national puckheads got caught up in the excitement on Feb. 18, when NBC broadcast the Pens hosting the Washington Capitals at Mellon Arena. The broadcast crew went ga-ga over the star power of our hockey club, and they were just as wowed by Pittsburgh fans.
Call it magnetism, star quality or esprit de corps. Whatever it is, this team has boatloads of it, due in large part to youthful exuberance. If you toss out Mark Recchi's age (39), the median age of this team is about 25.
But the youth that makes the Pens so bewitching can cut both ways, particularly in net. There have been too many times during the Penguins' magnificent post-All-Star run when they have allowed the opposition up off the ice in the third period.
Their third-period adventures apparently gave coach Michel Therrien such a pain that he sat 23-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for the Feb. 22 game against the Florida Panthers. We can only assume he was disgusted with Fleury's previous performance, a President's Day sale on goals to the New York Islanders. And at least for one night, the change worked: Back-up Jocelyn Thibault played his best game in goal, giving up only one shot. Thibault's stout defense allowed Colby Armstrong to win the matchup in overtime with a spectacular shot over the shoulder of Panthers net-minder Ed Belfour.
Winning is all that matters, so if 32-year-old Thibault keeps winning, it's hard to complain. Still, it's also hard to imagine he's the long-term answer in goal: Fleury is brilliant, albeit only intermittently. Is Therrien pushing the right buttons with Fleury? Shouldn't he just have Fleury play through this slump? After all, nobody's talking about cutting Sidney Crosby's ice time, and he's in the midst of a mini-slump too.
Investing time in Fleury now could pay off, because youth may be his only drawback. Good goalies, like fine wines, get better with age: Scroll through Stanley Cup winners of the past decade and see. Nikolai Khabibulin was 31 with the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning; Martin Broudeur, 31 with the 2003 New Jersey Devils. When the Detroit Red Wings won in 2002, goalie Dominik Hasek was 37, and 36-year-old Patrick Roy helped the Colorado Avalanche win the Cup the previous year. In fact, two old fogeys, Hasek and Broudeur, currently rank first and second in goals-against, respectively.
When this paper hits the streets, the trading deadline will have just passed. Fleury is the future of the Pens in net for sure, so if general manager Ray Shero pulled the trigger with any moves, hopefully it was to add a little more gristle to the team. The Pens could use a veteran presence to help protect Fleury in front of the net. An older, steady hand could take some pressure off a goalie who relies more on athleticism than guile.
Still, in the playoffs, the Pens will need more toughness: not an enforcer or a goon, just more defensive grit as Fleury matures. Because as even hockey neophytes know, you only go as far as your goalie can take you.