Marc-André Fleury is not your typical 19-year-old rookie goaltender. He is a prodigy who is almost oblivious to his talent. He was the top pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and the third goaltender to be taken first overall in the NHL Draft since 1968. The Sorel, Quebec native is a wonder in athletics and sportsmanship. Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick said of him this year, “He’s exceeded our expectations.”
Fleury made spectacular saves for the Penguins this year, appearing in 21 games and posting a .896 save percentage for the struggling Pens. Coach Eddie Olczyk knew his disappointment well and the decision was made on December 11, 2003 to send him to Helsinki, Finland to play for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. He was to step in, challenge himself and regain his overall confidence playing for the championship which made him into a sensation a year ago.
The tall, lean goalie known for his yellow pads and gloves, had two shaky starts in the 2004 tournament and was blamed by the media for the 4-3 loss to Team USA during the gold medal game. The rookie goaltender returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a short-lived stint, but given the team’s economic pressures and Fleury’s best interest in development, he was sent down to Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). His assignment was to perfect his skills under less pressure and with a winning team. Fleury ended with a 1.98 GAA and a .933 save percentage with Cape Breton.
The team’s playoff run proved more difficult as the Screaming Eagles were upset by Chicoutimi and the young goaltender struggled with a win and three losses gaining a 3.10 GAA and a .886 save percentage.
The Pittsburgh Penguins decided to continue his education during the post-season and sent him to the American Hockey League (AHL) for the playoff run of their affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Fleury was called upon against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers during Game 2 of the semifinals, turning aside 11 of 16 shots in a 5-4 overtime loss. Since then, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Coach Michel Therrien, who prides himself in excellent goaltending decision-making, decided that he should better serve as back-up for Games 5, 6 and 7 (April 22-25) of the semifinal series.
As the playoff run continued, the WBS Penguins advanced to play against the regular season first place Eastern Division team, the Philadelphia Phantoms. Fleury watched his teammates, 21-year-old Andy Chiodo and 23-year-old Sebastian Caron, as they took turns on goal in the 5-4 overtime win against the Philadelphia Phantoms.
Hockey’s Future spoke briefly to the now playoff-blonde goaltender in the press box during the intermission of the second game of the series.
HF: How do you like the American Hockey League coming from the NHL and the
MAF: It’s a very good league to play in. It’s a bon ligue! It’s fast (and) very intense. I like it so far.
HF: Being that Michel Therrien is French Canadian, how do you feel working with
MAF: (laughs) It’s pretty funny. I was watching Montreal (Canadiens) not so long ago and he was the head coach. Now he is my head coach. It’s always fun to work with a guy like him, you know, coaching the team.
HF: As a goalie, what do you do to prepare for games?
MAF: (smiles) Everything! You got to be well focused and you have to be well rested and ready to go.
HF: What do you think about the goaltender situation in Pittsburgh having so many great contenders?
MAF: Yeah, for sure! (Sebastien) Caron has being playing good. Andy (Chiodo) too. I just decide to go one day at a time and practice. Hopefully, soon I will have another chance to play.
HF: What do you expect next year for the Pittsburgh Penguins?
MAF: I think it will be pretty good. You know it was hard first part of the season but at the end they did great. So, hopefully we will keep it going next year too!