Monday June 1st, 2009

The sign on Interstate 76 East on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on a dim Monday morning reads "You Are On The Road To The Stanley Cup." After two games of the 2009 final, evidence suggests the road is right but the direction is wrong.

Five hours from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit to anachronistic Mellon Arena in revitalized downtown Pittsburgh, past roughly as many speed traps in Ohio as deer carcasses along the highway -- you needed to take off socks and shoes to count them all -- a traveler pondered the notion that the Pittsburgh Penguins seem no closer to solving their true dilemma.

Things could be worse for the Penguins, who were not the deer-in-the-headlights team that began the 2008 final. There are some obvious advantages to being home for Game 3, starting with matchups.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg were so close through the first two games that people were starting to, you know, talk. Unless Detroit coach Mike Babcock chases that matchup, which isn't his style, Crosby should be able to squirm free from the relentless Zetterberg, who probably will be Evgeni Malkin's problem.

The Igloo crowd should also provide a nice early jolt to the Penguins, which, like a little caffeine, could carry them for 10 minutes or so until their roiled emotions still and hockey takes over.

But for all the chatter about the first two games -- the spotty officiating, Penguins ringing posts, the gurgling emotions of Crosby in the first game and Malkin (next scheduled bout, Ivan Drago!) in the second, and the scoring spurt by Detroit rookie Justin Abdelkader -- the final, like so many others, reverts to one element: goaltending.

This is the elephant in the room for the Penguins, or at least Marc-André Fleury would have been in the room if coach Dan Bylsma had not excused him, Crosby and Malkin from interview duty Monday. (If you needed a fix but not a quote, you could step outside and see their pictures on a banner outside the shell of the new arena being erected across the street -- the House that Sid Built. When Washington Capitals goalie Simeon Varlamov said last month that they should build a monument to Crosby, he probably didn't know about Arena To Be Named Later.)

Tyler Kennedy, the Penguins' max-effort forward, gutted out a question, saying the team "has a lot of confidence in Marc," which no doubt is accurate. Still the Penguins would surely have even more confidence if Fleury, who can be brilliant, merely settled at steady.

Of the six Detroit goals in the first two games, three have been gift-wrapped. A pair ticked off Fleury's legs and into the net in Game 1, happenstances that were written off to rebounds off the lively boards that Detroit knows as well as Carl Yastrzemski once knew Fenway Park's Green Monster. While there certainly is a kernel of truth to the boards business, Fleury was also having some difficulty with positioning and technique. He was too far off his post and his line on Brad Stuart's first goal, and then went swimming on Johan Franzen's, which the goalie actually kicked in with the back of his leg.

Fleury adjusted in Game 2, staying deeper in his crease. (Indeed at times he looked like he was as deep as Tommy Salo, the former goalie who, if he had played any further back, would have ended up in China.) But then Fleury was victimized by an Abdelkader shot from the top of the left circle that would not even have been pulled over by the vigilant Ohio state cops, a glove-side floater that gave Detroit its third goal and pricked a pin in the Penguins' balloon.

After the game, Crosby, who also voiced his support, said he guessed Fleury would have wanted a mulligan on the shot. No kidding.

Sometimes goaltending is as much about when as how many. A steady run of strong saves stacked one upon the other can be razed by a single soft goal. Against a Detroit team as poised as a runway model, and with Chris Osgood almost bulletproof at the other end, a softie is a bridge too far for the team in this city of three rivers to cross.

Fleury certainly is capable of rebounding. In the riveting Game 5 triple overtime against the Red Wings last year, he stopped 55 of 58 shots, making a spectacular toe save on a Mikael Samuelsson two-on-one with about three minutes left in the second period. The stop will live as long as there is videotape. Fleury made a Phelpsian cross-crease push to his left to deny the goal, highlighting a waist-down adroitness that is unmatched in the NHL. His legs always have been whippet quick. Only his consistency tends to fade in and out, a flaw more noticeable under the Stanley Cup microscope.

Fleury can no longer be judged on a body of work, which, with two straight appearances in the final, rates as formidable. He will be only as good as his next save in Game 3.

Unless Pittsburgh revs its attack -- Bylsma's "net-front presence" was the phrase of the day -- Fleury will have no margin for error. He will be working without a net, except for that four-by-six foot cage behind him that the Red Wings have breeched far too easily.

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