Saturday, March 26, 2011

Shutouts are overrated


One of the major knocks against Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is he never gets shutouts. This kind of statement tends to come from people who will blame Fleury for a goal even if the Penguins somehow give up a 5-on-0.

That doesn't mean they're wrong. In fact, they're usually right. Holding a team completely scoreless is not one of Fleury's strengths. The most clean sheets he's had in a season is five, set in the same season (2006-07) in which he had a career-high 40 victories. (Ironically, he posted his third highest goals against average that year; only his first two seasons had a higher number.)

Fleury had only one shutout last season, in 67 games, and that actually came in the "revenge" game: Pittsburgh's first against Boston after Matt Cooke cheap-shotted Marc Savard.

In many cases, Fleury loses a shutout because of a soft goal he allows. Sometimes it's bad luck.

But who cares? So what? There are no special prizes for specifically leading the league in shutouts. (Awards like the Calder and Vezina trophies factor in that stat, sure.) What matters is winning the game.

With no mathematical evidence to support the following statement, I can tell you that most times when Fleury allows a soft goal, he'll come up with a save later in the game that he has no business making.

Fleury wins games. He probably won't win you many fantasy leagues but he gets the job done for Pittsburgh. He could post 82 shutouts, but if he loses all 82 in a shootout, will his detractors be happy? Eighty two points does not a playoff team make. (Hell, in the West, 82 points might not even be good enough for 13th place.)

After a horrendous October, and removing from consideration players born in August of 1987, Fleury has been Pittsburgh's best player. He'll likely be named the team's most valuable player at the team awards ceremony on Sunday. He struggled in February but in the months of November, December, January and so far through March, Fleury's highest GAA is 2.01, in December; the other three of those months it's below 2.00. His lowest save percentage in those months is .921. Friday's victory over New Jersey was Fleury's third shutout of the season.

Because of that October, Fleury won't set a new career-high for wins; he sits at 33 with seven games remaining, and Brent Johnson (perhaps Brad Thiessen as Johnson is currently out with an injury) is likely to start at least one or two more games.

Sure, it's disappointing when one soft goal, whether it came early or late, is all that separates Fleury from a shutout. What really matters however is earning two points, and Fleury puts his team in a position to win more nights than not.

Given the high-profile injuries Pittsburgh has suffered, one can make a case that Fleury should garner at least some consideration for the Hart Trophy. Of course, he won't win it, nor will he even be a finalist.

But I'd hate to think of where the Penguins might be right now with a lesser goalie.

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