Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad goal caused the Great War


"We only gave up 14 shots, we shouldn't have lost!"

"How do you give up a goal like that!?!"

"Get your head out of your ass and stop the puck!"

(Sarcastic cheers for routine save.)

If you're a goalie, particularly in the NHL, the above phrases or occurrences might sound familiar. If you're Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, they've been imprinted on your brain over the last week or so. You get blamed for every loss, no matter by what score or how the other 18 guys played, you never receive credit for a win, instead it's labeled a fluke, and you're also held responsible for the financial crash, the Middle East violence, and the meteor that's streaming towards Earth as we speak.

I'm here to tell you: It's not always your fault.

Sometimes it is, sure. Fleury allowed the softest of soft goals in the second game of the season, a tie-breaking tally to Montreal's Scott Gomez with two minutes remaining in the third period of what became a 3-2 Canadiens victory. Horrid goal to allow, and one he gave up earlier, which he badly overplayed to the point that he was floundering like a fish out of water (except he was basically out of his crease) wasn't much better.

See, for those who don't know, Fleury is 0-3 on the season. He's ranked dead last (38th) among goalies with a ghastly .853 save percentage. He hasn't played well.

But he also hasn't been awful - except for those two Montreal goals - and he's certainly not the reason Pittsburgh started 1-3. OK, not the sole reason. Sometimes a team leaves its goalie out to dry.

Because, and this is breaking news here: There are 18 other skaters on the ice, and some of them might actually have a tiny influence on how a game ends. Shocking, I know, but trust me, it's true. The problem is not many fans seem to realize that. I could single out any fan base with which this happens, but let's face it, it's something that afflicts every group.

For instance, when the Penguins started by losing their first three home games, and earning their only win against a 15-skater New Jersey team (with backup Brent Johnson in goal), superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined to record only four points in those four games. The power play was 3-for-20. Breakdowns in coverage, or porous turnovers (like one that led to a Claude Giroux shorthanded goal, a blind drop pass) occurred far too frequently.

Naturally, the only reason Pittsburgh was losing was Fleury.

There's even more fuel for the haters, as Johnson has started three straight games, and four of the last five, and is 4-0. His stats are stellar. He's fifth in save percentage (.950). Fifth in goals against average (1.49). He's tied for the league lead in wins. First in the hearts of all Penguins fans. Every point the Penguins have earned, they've done so with Johnson between the pipes.

Bottom line is, Johnson is winning games. Fleury isn't. Fleury has been subpar, but not horrid, however, he's also not coming up with the big-time saves his team needs. That needs to be pointed out as well.

But let's take a deeper look. The Giroux goal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago came as a result of Kris Letang attempting a drop pass, while on the power play, in his own zone, to partner Paul Martin, who wasn't anywhere near the drop pass. Giroux got to the puck first, made Martin look silly, Fleury even sillier, and scored a great goal. A save there would've been spectacular, hardly routine, and wouldn't have been necessary if Letang pressed forward with the puck rather than backward. Letang's drop pass was one of about 100 the Penguins attempted that night. They were just asking for trouble. Finally, they got it.

Fast-forward to Fleury's last outing, a 4-3 loss to Toronto, which had only 14 shots on goal. The first goal, by Colton Orr, was a redirect in front of the cage of a shot from the point. Two things to take from this: 1) No Penguin blocked Luke Schenn's shot from the blue line, 2) No one muscled Orr out from in front of the net to allow Fleury a chance to see the puck, let alone stop it.

Goals two and three (Clarke MacArthur and Francois Beauchemin) had one thing in common: Both came seconds after Toronto won an attack-zone faceoff. Win the draw, neither goal happens, at least not in the same fashion. Delving deeper, MacArthur one-timed a cross-ice pass from Tomas Kaberle on the power play into an open net. No penalty killer blocked the pass.

In both these instances, Pittsburgh tries the same kind of thing (point shots, cross-ice passes) very often, but the opposition constantly blocks these attempts. The Penguins need to start taking a page out of their book. (Toronto blocked 20 shots that night to Pittsburgh's 10.)

Beauchemin's goal was a straight slap shot from the point that got through about 19 bodies. I doubt Fleury even saw Beachemin wind up, let alone catch sight of the puck. Again, no defender clearing a lane for Fleury to see.

MacArthur's second of the night, and eventual winner, came off a nifty backhand pass from behind the net by Mikhail Grabovski. MacArthur laced a one-timer from point-blank range past Fleury. There was no defender within 15 feet of MacArthur. Horrid breakdown.

So there you have it. Four goals on 14 shots. Fleury was the sole problem in many fans' eyes. Never mind the 2-1 lead Pittsburgh held but couldn't build on, nor the careless high sticking penalty Eric Tangradi took that led to MacArthur's first goal, or all those Toronto blocked shots combined with Pittsburgh's inability to prevent pucks getting to the net.

With Johnson playing well and Fleury not, there's a bit of a controversy going on in Pittsburgh. Except there's not, really. Fleury is the No. 1 goalie who's going through a bad spell. He's not the reason the power play went 1-for-5 in the season opener or 0-for-6 against Montreal. He's not the reason why Crosby and Malkin had fewer points than Mark Letestu (they have 10 points in the last three games combined now.)

I've been told that players play differently, more scared or some such, when Fleury is in goal. My response to that is, well it rhymes with "hoarse chit." Crosby and Malkin should always be trying to score or play strong defense, the defensemen need to not be stupid in their own end when they make careless passes to each other, and if they're on the power play and thinking about what Fleury's positioning is, something is seriously wrong.

No, the reason Pittsburgh started 1-3 is a combination of poor finishing (125 shots in the first four games, just 10 goals, one an empty netter, compared to 15 goals, no empty netters, on 90 shots in the last three games), careless defensive breakdowns (the Giroux and MacArthur goals) and yes, mediocre goaltending. In other words, a total team effort.

Blaming the goalie for a loss is the easy, obvious and flat-out lazy way to go. It's done by people who don't watch the entire game, who don't analyze what all went wrong, or who look at just the numbers (what if all 14 shots came on breakaways? Numbers help but never tell the whole story) to figure out what happened in a game.

Instead, they want to trade the goalie as soon as he has a bad game.

Of course, if Fleury is so horrible, why on earth would anyone want to trade for him? Just another piece of logic that many fans ignore.

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