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Hot and Cold

A young Penguins defense just needs time

There is no substitute for experience ... and no way to get it without taking a few lumps.

And that's pretty much what we've seen over the past two weeks from Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury stopped 66 of 67 shots on goal over two games: a 2-1 Oct. 20 victory, in Washington, and three days later a shut-out of the New York Rangers, at Mellon Arena. Of course, that stretch of magnificence was followed by a putrid 5-3 loss to Toronto which was uglier than the score indicates, and the Oct. 27 game against Montreal, when Fleury gave up three goals in the first two periods, prompting coach Michel Therrien to put Dany Sabourin in net.

But I still think Fleury can flourish. Those 66 saves are heady numbers, and mark another step in the maturation of the Flower, who is after all the youngest primary netminder in the NHL. But progress is never a straight line. On offense, players can survive with an instinctive, physical intellect that guides them before they even know what's going on. But speed and agility will only take a goalie so far.

If Fleury's performances against the Maple Leafs and Canadians were discouraging, his two-game run the weekend before was inspiring -- especially considering that he held the combined offensive fire-power of Alexander Ovechkin's Capitals and Jaromir Jagr's Rangers to one goal.

Jagr still has the filthiest wrist shot on the planet, which he unleashed more than once on Fleury. One of them rang off the goalpost. (A little luck never hurts any goalie.) But let's just say that the odds of Fleury shutting out Jaromir Jagr, Scottie Gomez and Chris Drury for 60 minutes have to be steeper than the odds that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl can get through a week without a major gaffe.

Fleury's puck-handling also remains a significant issue, requiring much support from his defensemen, an admitted adjustment for newcomer Darryl Sydor. But while the defense still breaks down from time to time -- and the added workload due to Fleury's puck skills doesn't help -- it has shown tremendous development.

It's hard to pin down the considerable contributions of a good defenseman, even one who was the first-round pick in the 2000 draft and led the team with 186 hits last year. Brooks Orpik looks even better this year.

That may be a surprising statement, considering that, at the time of this writing, he has a plus/minus rating of -5. But I'm willing to ignore that, because Sid Crosby is at -4. Sometimes you can't tease the truth out of numbers -- and they are certainly inadequate in describing Orpik's play in this young season.

He has been all over the place, clearing the puck, ranging with his stick in the neutral zone to break up passes, laying some surprising checks along the boards, and keeping his head up to make smart passes.

He turned in a spectacular performance in the Oct. 17 home loss to the New Jersey Devils, which was marked not by player interference (as is traditionally the case with the Devils), but with the Penguins hamstrung by six back-to-back penalties in the second period.

Most discouraging was a call (too many men on the ice) that negated an Evgeni Malkin goal. The Pens must be on pace to set a new mark for "too many players" calls in one season. The disallowed goal was set up by a spectacular pass through the neutral zone from Orpik to Jordan Staal, who neatly fed the puck to Malkin.

Even though the goal didn't count, it was the kind of solid transitional passing the Penguins lacked last year -- a big reason the Ottawa Senators rolled them in the playoffs. Hopefully we'll see more of it this season from Orpik.

After Orpik, Fleury and the rest of his department of defense finished the job in our nation's capital, there was one more notable sight. I half-expect the usually grim-visaged Therrien to fire up a Gauloise and break into "Le Marseillaise" at his pressers, but instead he smiled broadly. We haven't seen that smile since, and we probably won't see it much again until Fleury is fully in bloom.

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