April 20, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; The Philadelphia Flyers celebrate a goal by Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell (not pictured) as Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) reacts during the first period in game five of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
Yes, criticizing Marc-Andre Fleury for his performance against the Flyers can make you sound ignorant, but that doesn't make you wrong.
Seemingly every argument about Marc-Andre Fleury's performance in the 2012 NHL Playoffs has followed this pattern:
Fan: "Fleury has played really, really poorly in this Flyers series. He has to be better."
Media / Other Fan: "If you think Fleury is the Penguins' only problem in this series, you're crazy."
That's not a counterargument. Pointing out that Fleury wasn't the Penguins' only problem in their six-game elimination at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers is not a viable response to criticism of Fleury's play in this series. No rational Penguins fan would even begin to argue that Fleury was the Pens' only problem in the Flyers series, and to reiterate this fact in response to Fleury-criticism serves to merely state the obvious and deflect arguments from ignorant trolls whose blind Fleury blame doesn't actually merit a response.
Saying "Fleury wasn't the only problem" does not address the concerns of the rational majority of Penguins fans who have argued, with full knowledge of the Penguins' other glaring problems this postseason, that Fleury's play was also atrocious. Even if we take into account Fleury's calm two periods in Game 4 and a dominant third period in Game 5, his overall performance in the Flyers series was unacceptable by NHL goaltender standards, let alone by the standards of a supposed 'clutch' franchise goaltender making over $5 million a year.
Critiques of Fleury's play, no matter how rational, are frequently met with defensive responses from media members and fans hesitant to throw the Pens' goalie under the bus for a number of understandable, if fallacious, reasons. Here are the four main reasons why almost any criticism of Fleury (or any goalie) is met with instant skepticism from knowledgeable hockey people in a way that criticism of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang rarely inspires, and why these reasons are not valid defenses of Fleury's play:
1. The goalie's poor play is rarely a team's only problem. Goaltender success is often synonymous with a team's defensive performance (look at the St. Louis goalies' save percentages this year), and as we've already mentioned, this most certainly was the case in the Penguins/Flyers series. However, stating that Fleury wasn't "the only problem" is redundant and self-evident (can any one person truly be the sole cause of a series outcome, in any sport?), and this does not in any way alter the fact that Fleury's play was, independently of his subhuman defense, still roundly unacceptable.
2. Criticizing the goalie makes you sound like a 'beginner' hockey fan. Complaining about the goalie is tantamount to yelling at the Penguins to shoot more: it instantly makes you sound like a novice hockey fan who doesn't truly know what he/she is talking about. However, that doesn't alter the fact that sometimes the goalie does play poorly, and sometimes the Penguins do need to shoot more. Just because these arguments seem overly-basic and happen to overlap with the rallying cries of frustrated casual fans doesn't instantly invalidate them when they are obviously true. I myself often hesitate to argue that the Penguins need to shoot more even in games when it's clearly the case, simply because yelling "Shoot it!" makes you sound like that drunk mulleted dude in your Consol balcony section whose understanding of hockey consists of nothing beyond spilling his drink when the Penguins miss one pass on a power play. In our self-conscious desires to avoid making these arguments and risk seeming ignorant about the sport, we sometimes ironically allow ourselves to overlook extremely evident truths, such as Fleury's noticeably terrible series.
3. Players and coaches never criticize the goalie. This is an unwritten rule followed throughout hockey at any level, essentially from Mites on up. Basically, skaters and coaches all understand how hard the goalie's job is, they understand how their own play affects the goalie's, and deep down, everyone's secretly thankful that someone else is in goal. It's the same reason why goalies can usually join intramural teams for free; goalies are always in demand and always automatically respected because no one wants to have that job, and understandably so, given the goalie's uniquely conspicuous ability to affect the outcome of a game.
As a result, players and coaches will almost never publicly blame a goalie no matter how poorly they perform (good luck finding any Penguins player saying one negative word about Fleury's performance in these playoffs.) This doesn't mean that goalies should be automatically absolved from blame; on the contrary, the fact that players and coaches will never blame their goalies is all the more reason to disregard their comments when evaluating a goaltender's performance. Of course Dan Bylsma is going to say he has full confidence in Fleury, because no coach in the NHL would say anything else about their goalie, ever (except for the ultra-rare instance of John Tortorella on the Lightning saying it was time for John Grahame to "Make a f***ing save," a comment so rare as to be historically memorable).
We aren't Penguins players or coaches, and we don't have to worry about an unwritten hockey code or about our teammate's confidence when evaluating Fleury's performance. We can judge his performance as dispassionate, objective observers, and by any estimation, both statistical and in a straight-up visual sense, Fleury performed horrendously in the Flyers series. Post-game comments from Fleury's teammates should not convince us otherwise, because, again, no one ever publicly criticizes their goalie.
4. Expectations for goaltenders in the NHL are at an all-time high. Goaltending in the NHL leaguewide has arguably never been better than it is right now, and as a result, expectations for goaltenders are at an all-time high. As we've stated several times, people have deflected blame from Fleury's atrocious .834 save percentage and 4.63 GAA by citing the Penguins' wholly-incompetent team defense against the Flyers, and pointing out the all-too-frequent occurrences where goals just simply "weren't Fleury's fault." This notion isn't untrue in a vacuum, but look around the rest of the playoffs and you'll see superhuman performances by Craig Anderson (stopped 41 of 41 shots in Ottawa's Game 5 win at Madison Square Garden), Pekka Rinne (allowed three goals on 84 shots in the Predators' Game 3 and 4 wins over Detroit), Jonathan Quick (stopped 87 of 89 shots in the Kings' Game 2 and 3 wins over No. 1-seeded Vancouver), and even playoff newcomer Braden Holtby (.946 SV% though five games against the defending-champion Bruins).
Certainly no goalie's defense in these playoffs has abandoned them quite like Fleury's, and the SV% statistic often functions at the whim of the quality of the shots in question, but still, the difference between the aforementioned goaltenders' performances and that of the supposedly-clutch, franchise goaltender Fleury is so unbelievably staggering, it leaves almost no room for interpretation. Yes, many of the goals Fleury allowed weren't "his fault," but elite goaltenders league-wide frequently stop shots that wouldn't have been "their fault" if they'd gone in. No one would've blamed Craig Anderson if he'd allowed two or three goals in that Rangers game, but he didn't, and as a result, he almost single-handedly willed the Senators to that crucial victory with virtually no offensive support.
Obviously, expecting Fleury to post shutouts or even a 90+ SV% behind the Penguins' defense this series would've been unreasonable, but even taking into account the poor defense, Fleury consistently failed to make exemplary saves that elite-performing goalies in the NHL Playoffs make with moderate regularity. Plus, given the Penguins' offensive output and the Flyers' own defensive deficiencies this series, there's no telling what an additional one or two big saves might've done in the Penguins' losses; simply subtracting a goal or two from the final scores and saying "The Pens would've lost anyway" is fallacious, since it assumes that the outcome would've played out exactly the same regardless of the score, it fails to take into account the Penguins' team confidence & momentum, and it disregards the Flyers' ability to play a more defensive system when they have a bigger lead (though this only noticeably occurred in Game 6).
The bottom line is, we can criticize Fleury's performance in the Flyers series without absolving the Penguins' defense, without sounding like a whiny, ignorant fan, and without starting some giant meta-debate about Fleury's "clutchness" or the Penguins' ability to move forward with him as their franchise goalie. We know Fleury can play better because we've seen Fleury play better all season long, and numerous times in the past. We know the Penguins can win a Cup with Fleury as their goaltender because they literally won a Cup with Fleury as their goaltender. But none of this changes the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury simply didn't play well enough in the Penguins' series against the Flyers, and if we're going to shower him with well-earned praise for his fantastic third-period performance in Game 5, we absolutely cannot ignore his inconceivably poor performance throughout the rest of the series.
Fleury didn't initiate the Pens' collapse against the Flyers, but he also did little to nothing to prevent it, and given the unprecedented state of elite goaltending in the NHL these days, his performance as a supposedly franchise goaltender was unacceptable. Sure, that drunk mulleted dude who knows nothing might scream the same thing (in his own words), but that doesn't make you both wrong.