Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury started a career-high 66 contests in 2009-10. That number accounted for 80.4 percent of the team’s starts. In 2013-14, Fleury has started between the pipes in 47 of the Pens’ first 58 games, or 81.0 percent.
What’s interesting about the comparison is that both seasons involved the Olympics. The Flower made Team Canada in 2009-10 but did not play. Obviously, he’s not on Canada’s entry in Sochi right now (even though a strong case could be made for him).
The Pittsburgh netminder started 49 of 62 games (79.03 percent) before the break in 2009-10 and 47 of 58 contests (81.03 percent) in 2013-14.
In other words, the Pens have ridden Fleury pretty hard this year.
The biggest difference between the two seasons might be where the team sits in the standings. Four years ago, the Penguins finished second in the Atlantic Division with 101 points, two points behind New Jersey and fourth-most in the Eastern Conference.
Fleury started 17 of the last 20 regular-season games as the Pens tried to move up in the standings.
There’s little doubt about whether the Pens will win the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14 – the only question is by how many points.
Barring a collapse of epic proportion, the Penguins – who lead the second-place Rangers by 16 points – will wrap up the division shortly after St. Patrick’s Day.
What does this mean for Fleury?
Pittsburgh plays 24 regular-season games after the Olympics. It can afford to rest Fleury as necessary. If he starts 19 of those contests, then he’ll tie his career mark.
This is where the rest of the year gets a bit dicey.
Should the Penguins give backup Jeff Zatkoff one-third of the starts down the stretch? Zatkoff could go eight times the rest of the regular season, leaving Fleury with the other 16 nods. That would seem to make the most sense.
Fleury would finish with 63 starts and his both his body and mind would be ready to go for the postseason.
The Pens coaching staff needs to show a bit of restraint with Fleury.
On one hand, the goalie’s already getting a 20-day Olympics break, so what’s the problem with playing him often in March and April. Moreover, the team doesn’t want to see its hot tender grow cold due to inactivity.
On the other hand, few teams have won the Stanley Cup with a goalie starting more than 65 regular-season games. If the Pens decide to use the Flower as their only playoff tender – and it’s beginning to look like Zatkoff will be Fleury’s only safety valve – then it might be wise to watch his starts.
If the playoffs started with the current standings, then the Pens would host the Detroit Red Wings. The team would need Fleury at the top of his game – as he was when the Penguins beat Detroit for its only Cup in the last 20-plus years.
Fleury has started more games in March (91) than in any other month. It’s time to try something new entering the playoffs by keeping the Flower fresh.
There’s no way of predicting how the Flower will play in the playoffs, but putting him in a position to succeed can only help.