EXTREME MAKEOVER, NHL Edition: The long and ultimately colorless story of Marc-Andr� Fleury's transformation—the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie was flashing a high-wattage smile and a sparkling .940 playoff save percentage through Sunday—began last autumn in the Ottawa home of Janet Leduc. Although a committed Senators fan, Leduc is foremost an optometrist. (As you are no doubt aware, there is no eye in team.) After being driven to distraction for years while watching Fleury flash his trademark taxicab-yellow pads on TV, Leduc permitted professional judgment to supersede hometown loyalty and said enough was enough, much as Fleury did last Friday when he shut down the Philadelphia Flyers 4--2 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals after allowing two first-period goals. In November, Leduc sent letters to the Penguins' owners, coaches and general manager Ray Shero, explaining that yellow is the color most easily distinguished by the human eye—a nifty graph was enclosed—and recommended that their goalie switch to white pads to better blend with the ice and end boards. As Leduc said by telephone recently, "If there were a sniper walking around, I wouldn't be dressing in yellow. It's too visible. That's why the Golden Arches are yellow, why school buses are yellow." Shero passed on his copy of the letter to head athletic trainer Chris Stewart, who, in December, showed it to Fleury.
The missive arrived at the ideal time. "I was bored," Fleury says. Instead of getting a tattoo or pink highlights like other bored people his age, Fleury, 23, then early in what would be an almost three-month rehabilitation for a high-ankle sprain, decided to request a set of pads in white, with only a sliver of Penguins gold. The color is a fashion solecism after Labor Day for everybody except goalies, many of whom are convinced it makes them look bigger. ("Every woman knows that," says Leduc. "Go to a party and try to find a woman in a white dress. That's why we all have black dresses.") When Fleury made his first rehab start with the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, his legs were draped in virginal Reebok white. After he stopped 30 of 31 shots to get the win, he was sold on his new look, although he hedged by traveling the minors with his old yellers. Dressed in the white pads when he returned to the NHL in late February—they did make him look bigger, his Penguins teammates agreed—Fleury had a .947 save percentage, yielded an average of 1.53 goals per game and won 10 of 13 starts over the rest of the regular season, then prevailed in 10 of his first 11 in the playoffs after a 4--2 win in Game 2 on Sunday.
So, Dr. Leduc, we get the stuff about white making it difficult for shooters to distinguish a goalie's pads in traffic, but can you explain why wearing it also makes you a better puckhandler?
SEVEN MINUTES into the first period of hockey's Pennsylvania primary—think Obama versus Clinton, only with crosschecks and face washes—Flyers forward Mike Knuble was bearing down on the puck just to the left and rear of the Pittsburgh crease. Fleury took two strides behind the net, corralled the puck, looked off the intruder and then switched to his backhand, rimming a 10-footer to a defenseman to start a Pittsburgh breakout. For a puck-moving maestro like, say, the Dallas Stars' Marty Turco, this pass would have fallen at the midpoint of the spectrum between ho and hum, but for Fleury, who used to treat the puck as if it had cooties, his �lan in making the play was wondrous.
Ignore for a moment the cosmetic pad change. The essence of this makeover is the guts of Fleury's game, which has evolved dramatically since he returned from his ankle injury. "It's almost like two different goalies the way he's playing now," Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar says. "He's much more comfortable." The difference is as stark as black and, well, you know.
Fleury has always has been a dervish in net, boasting hockey's quickest legs when he entered the NHL in 2003--04. In the crease he was like a duck whose legs were paddling furiously beneath the water's surface, churning constantly and often uselessly. Fleury is still nimble—midway through the second period of Game 1 he read a tricky bounce and butterflied swiftly to make a pad save on an attempted stuff-in by Philadelphia's R.J. Umberger—but now he usually waits for a shot to find him, rarely taking himself out of position to make a stop. "Sometimes he'd get there too quick and sort of slide by the shot," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik says. "He used to make the first save and be out of position."
If Fleury now makes saves by letting the puck come to him, he also has started going to the puck when he has an opportunity to play it with his stick. You've heard of stay-at-home defensemen? Fleury was a stay-at-home goalie. In the five-game thrashing that Ottawa gave the Penguins in the first round of last year's playoffs, Fleury looked like he was tethered to his net. Like a running back failing to pick up the blitz, Fleury was making his defensemen vulnerable by not intercepting pucks and thus not relieving the pressure from the Senators' furious forecheck. Ottawa would angle dump-ins to the corner to Fleury's right, obliging the gaggle of Pittsburgh defensemen with lefthanded shots to play the puck on their backhands while being mashed into the glass. Fleury was mostly a bystander to the carnage, although hardly innocent.
But as they might say in the optometry business, there was more to Fleury's reticence in handling the puck than meets the eye. There was a sad, almost secret backstory. Late in the 2004 World Junior Championships final against the U.S., Fleury came out to pokecheck Patrick O'Sullivan, who was hurtling in on a breakaway. The goalie played the puck, but it struck teammate Braydon Coburn in the back of the leg and caromed into the net for the Americans' winning goal, a Bucknerian moment in Canadian junior hockey history. As Fleury sat shirtless in a trainer's room earlier this postseason, his omnipresent smile dimmed. "I just didn't want to make mistakes anymore after that [goal]," he said. "I decided I would just focus on stopping [the puck], not worry about making plays; I didn't want to mess up again."
Forget Dr. Leduc. Paging Dr. Freud.
FLEURY NEEDED time, and coaching, to heal the pain. Often he has not received the support he deserved from an organization that drafted him at No. 1 in 2003—the formerly cash-strapped franchise didn't even have a full-time goalie coach until Gilles Meloche, then a Penguins scout and goalie consultant, took the job two years ago—but now help has come from all directions. Meloche has drilled Fleury on the nuances of the position and injected more poise. And, blessedly, backup netminder Ty Conklin is a capable puck mover. Fleury improved during his injury hiatus simply by observing Conklin and pestering him for tips.