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Marc-Andre Fleury thanked his stick and flashed a smile so wide it could be seen through his mask.
This was vintage Fleury, and he has the Pittsburgh Penguins one step closer to another Stanley Cup.
Fleury stopped all 29 shots in a turn-back-the-clock performance to shut out the Washington Capitals 2-0 in Game 7 on Wednesday night, sending Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Ottawa Senators.
This was the Fleury who backstopped the Penguins to the Cup in 2009 and was almost unbeatable early in the second-round series, and his return was all they needed to eliminate the Presidents’ Trophy winners in a meeting of the NHL’s top two teams.
“We’re not in this position moving on if he doesn’t play the way he did,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who assisted on Bryan Rust’s opening goal. “There were times where they had sustained pressure throughout games and he made some big saves that allowed us to stay in the game and allowed us to stay patient. He was huge for us all series long.”
Fleury thought it was the Penguins’ best team game of the playoffs, a theory that teammates and coach Mike Sullivan echoed. They were again outshot as they were in every game of the series, this time only 29-28, but Rust and Patric Hornqvist scored on Braden Holtby, and Fleury shut the door.
It was as complete a game as Pittsburgh has had through two rounds, even though it was without injured defenceman Trevor Daley and winger Carl Hagelin. Crosby looked like himself again in his third game back from a concussion, and the rest of the team followed.
“They just always find a way to respond the right way to any of the challenges or the adversities that this league throws at us, and they did it again tonight,” Sullivan said. “I think these guys are at their best when the stakes are high. … I thought that was the closest thing to the Penguins identity that we’ve seen in the playoffs so far.”
It was far from Capitals hockey, which was on display in victories in Games 5 and 6. Chances came and went as Washington failed to get beyond the second round for the seventh time in as many chances in the Alex Ovechkin era.
“Without goals, you can’t win the game,” said Ovechkin, who played the seventh-most of any Capitals forward at 18:22 and was on the ice for each goal. “Plenty of chance to score. Just didn’t do it. Made a couple mistakes, and it cost us.”
Mistakes by Ovechkin and defencemen Matt Niskanen and Kevin Shattenkirk in clearing the puck out of the defensive zone led to Rust’s goal 8:49 into the second and Hornqvist’s 4:14 into the third. Ovechkin had one of the Capitals’ best scoring chances of the game from the slot, and his shot went off the shaft of Fleury’s stick.
It was so close Ovechkin raised his arms thinking he’d scored. That’s when Fleury smiled and said something — but not to a teammate.
“I talk to my stick, maybe,” Fleury said. “I say thank you and say good job.”
The Penguins thanked Fleury for yet another stellar performance. After allowing nine goals on 142 shots through the first four games, he allowed nine in Games 5 and 6 before bouncing back with this effort that sent the Capitals plunging into an off-season of change and Pittsburgh into its fifth East final in 10 years.
Playing only because No. 1 Matt Murray was injured prior to the playoff opener and with his future uncertain, Fleury was at his best in the biggest game of the season so far.
“I think that we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t give Flower an awful lot of credit,” centre Matt Cullen said. “He stole us more than one game this series and he kept us in a lot of others. We give him a lot of credit, and we’re all so happy for him and proud of him. You can’t ask for a better teammate than Flower with what he’s gone through the last couple years and to step up the way he has.”