It's no secret that with Evgeni Malkin out for the season, and with the only update on Sidney Crosby's concussion being "no update," the Pittsburgh Penguins will only be competitive this season if goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and their defense carry them.
While the team's overall health has improved in recent weeks with the returns of Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey, and while the additions of James Neal and Alex Kovalev have added elements of skill to the offense, the Pens are still offensively hobbled without their two brightest stars. In the 12 games since Malkin was lost to a major knee injury, the Pens have only generated 25 goals, which barely averages above two per game. Eight of the 12 games they've scored two goals or fewer.
With such a razor-thin margin for error, the Pens need Fleury to keep the team competitive. Fleury's finest statistical hour, the 2008 playoffs, came in a season when his workload was limited. Sure, it was due to injuries, but even in the successful Cup run of 2009, Fleury had just 61 starts. In 2006-07 and 2009-10, Fleury had his two worst playoff performances, and he also had his two career highs in starts those years (65 and 66, respectively).
Which makes it a little concerning that Fleury has appeared in 16 of the Penguins' 17 games since the All-Star Break, has started 51 games so far with 15 more to go. That's enough to rank him among the league leaders in games played and started.
It's difficult to blame Dan Bylsma, as he tries to keep his wounded team above water on a nightly basis. Fleury gives the team the best chance to win, and he's relatively young still and has an indefatigable spirit. Are 65-plus games too many for him in a long season, and would just a few more nights off make a difference for when it counts?
Any scouting report on Fleury goes basically like this- "superb athleticism and reflexes but can struggle with focus and consistency." Focus and consistency can be exploited if a player is overworked. Even though Fleury has helped keep an under-manned squad in games every night, his save percentage is a lackluster .899 since the All-Star Break (compared to .925 before it).
Marc-Andre Fleury will likely be the biggest factor for how the Penguins fare from here on out. Goaltender is already the most important position in hockey, but now his importance has been magnified in light of injuries. The Penguins will likely see Fleury come close to his career high in games played in a season. Now is his chance to silence some critics about his consistent performances.