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Marc-Andre Fleury Steadies Injury-Ravaged Penguins

Kris Letang slowly glided down the ice, roaming a bit to each side before squaring up with New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still on the shelf, nurturing injuries, and Jordan Staal sent to the locker room in the second period after being issued a match penalty for delivering a comically devastating rabbit-punch to Brandon Prust, the burden of the Penguins' shootout hopes fell upon its young defenseman.

Letang slowed a bit more, almost standing in place. A quick hand-fake did little to stir Lundqvist, before Letang pulled the puck back, and fired quickly glove side. Save.

The Penguins' hopes quickly shattered without much effort from Lundqvist, his superior positioning prevailing.

There was a feeling of deflation - perhaps for the Penguins' players, but definitely for their fanbase, which was well aware that the ensuing shooters would be less skilled than Letang.

But Marc-Andre Fleury had saved the best show of skill for last.

Having withstood a barrage of shots from the Rangers in the third period, turning aside 11 and helping kill off two penalties, including a 5-on-3 advantage, the red-hot Fleury shone brightly. The nervous goaltender from early November clearly a distant memory. 

Overtime gave way to the shootout. Fleury would face seven shooters. All would be stifled in their attempts.:

Impressive. Impressive enough to last until Dustin Jeffrey reached the ice, snapping a shot past Lundqvist to give the Penguins that final bit of scoring they would need.

There has been a popular belief that the Penguins sans Sidney Crosby are not quite a playoff team. Too many grinders, not enough talent. Without Evgeni Malkin, the picture appeared bleaker. However, the Penguins now stand at 6-3-1 without Crosby and, even more impressively, 3-1 without either player.

Several factors come into play with this, one of the more important ones being the system that the Penguins play, a very aggressive blend of energy, puck possession and aggression that fits the workmanlike makeup of the roster.

But, the main reason for the Penguins' recent success has been the stellar play of Marc-Andre Fleury, who has shown the maturity to take his early-season lumps in stride.

No longer is he micromanaging each bodily movement. Instead, he's reacting to shooters. No longer is he screaming out of the net to challenge shooters. Instead, trusting his angles and letting his reflexes handle the rest. Fleury is playing like the goaltender even his harshest of critics know he can be.

Now, with Crosby and Malkin out, the Penguins are suddenly Fleury's team. From what I can see, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.