Because it's the Cup, we got bad Marc-Andre Fleury.
Narratives don't come simpler than Fleury's rep as a decent goaltender who falls apart in the postseason. And no one reinforces their narrative like Fleury, who for four seasons followed up good (not great) regular seasons with playoff meltdowns. It's now five years since that Penguins Cup, the last time coach Dan Bylsma was able to have confidence that his netminder wouldn't brainfart his way to a loss, and last night's overtime loss in Columbus was the very worst-case scenario come to life.
With 23 seconds left and an empty Blue Jackets net, Fleury inexplicably left his own to play a dump-in. The unsettled puck bounced under Fleury's stick ("If the puck is flat, he makes the play," said Bylsma, not inaccurately), a beautiful centering pass from Ryan Johansen squeaked inches beyond the reaches of three separate Penguins, and Brandon Dubinsky found the wide open net. Tie game.
Then, 2:49 into overtime, Fleury was beaten for the winner from 50 feet out, on what can't be described as anything but a soft goal.
There was impressive work done by Columbus to set up both goals, most notably R.J. Umberger's block and James Wisniewski's neutral zone effort on the second. No one but the Umberger and Wisniewski households care about that today, because this best and most interesting series of the opening round (Columbus's coming-out party; Bylsma coaching for his job; Four straight squandered 3-1 leads) finally has its individual storyline.
Do you feel bad for Fleury? It's an interesting question that probably says a lot about how you watch hockey. The obvious, fandom-centric answer is hell no—here's a guy gifted with some of the best scorers the league has ever known in front of him, and hasn't been able to hold it together for two months in the spring to win more than one Cup with a perennial championship-caliber roster (not that this year's team has one, mind you). For anyone who actively roots against the Penguins—and that's a large chunk of the continent—there's joy to be taken in Fleury's plight.
But don't you feel a little something for Fleury, the human being who sat at his locker with his head down, his face buried in a t-shirt, who after making 42 saves—many of them highlight-reel quality—is singlehandedly blamed for the loss? Maybe not sympathy, but at least pity? In no other job is a person so utterly alone and in the spotlight, his every foible isolated and analyzed. And for someone like Fleury, who has already built up a reputation as a choker and knows it, to choke again? And to know he's going to take most of the heat, even though the Penguins are icing their weakest team in years? There but for the grace of Tom Barrasso go we.
Fleury, at the urging of the Penguins (who had been pushing him for years), saw a sports psychologist over the summer. Imagine that. Imagine your employer very publicly announcing to the world that they think your head's not right. But Fleury responded with one of his best statistical regular seasons, and has been very, very good in the Columbus series. Hell, he was very, very good through 59:36 last night. But the nature of hockey, especially for a goaltender, is that it can all come apart in a second. The pressure and anticipation have to be worse than the actual and inevitable lapses. That sounds like a miserable job.
"You put it behind you and move on and get ready for the next one," Fleury said, and the next time he's able to do that will be the first. In the meantime, we'll just be here, waiting for and counting on and hoping for his next breakdown. Because sports demand failure—even if we don't have to feel good about it.