The last time Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury met in a postseason game, the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie was being unfairly faulted by some as a Stanley Cup finals goat while the Detroit Red Wings netminder was raising the chalice for the third time in his career.
The way both are playing right now, it's not outlandish to imagine a rematch. The 2009 postseason has been filled with some stellar goaltending from the likes of Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo; but it's been the much-maligned goalies for last year's finalists that are crafting two compelling comeback tales ... when you consider how nightmarish their careers have been at times since last spring.
Osgood's regular-season challenges were magnified because the Red Wings had few other faults or perceived weak links. But that doesn't diminish the magnitude of those struggles. What other Stanley Cup winning goalie had to, in the following season, deal with:
• His status as starting goaltender questioned from fans and media, as backup Ty Conklin proved as capable as Osgood proved to be culpable?
• Being so unfocused and strained that he was given a 10-day "mental vacation" by the team to figure out his game?
• Entering the postseason as a Cup-defending goalie, only to have the majority of pundits agree that he's the guy who could cost the Wings the Cup?
• Getting called "Opie Cunningham" by people who goof on his boyish looks. (Oh, wait, that's every season ... but hey, Kristen Bell's a fan. So he's got that going for him.)
Well, in three games against an overmatched Columbus Blue Jackets team, Osgood is 3-0 with a 0.67 GAA and a .974 save percentage. As you can see from the shot chart from last night's Game 3 victory, the BeeJays had some quality chances that Osgood expertly turned aside.
He's playing behind a stout defense, but he's also been a vital last line of defense for Detroit.
Beat writer Bruce MacLeod of Red Wings Corner writes that Osgood's effort thus far has been extraordinary:
Chris Osgood has played just as well, if not better, than he did last spring. If Ozzie wins his fourth Stanley Cup - sorry for the jinx Ozzie - hopefully the international perception that he was a good goalie on a great franchise will disappear. He's a great goalie at the tail end of a great career. It's wrong that he's held up as the Trent Dilfer of hockey.
So maybe that's the trigger for Osgood's transformation from a pedestrian regular-season goalie to a postseason Vezina. There are other players that have made the same leaps -- Detroit favorite Claude Lemieux comes immediately to mind; Alex Kovalev is almost mimicking the journey Osgood had in his play for the Montreal Canadiens this postseason.
If Osgood keeps this up, he may still not get the respect that guys like Brodeur received as champion goaltenders; but being one of the best postseason keepers in NHL history is a nice consolation.
Fleury's working on that reputation as well. He was a revelation last playoff, but like Osgood had his struggles during the following regular season. Despite good numbers (2.67 GAA, .912 save percentage), Fleury didn't find his game until March. Please recall January's trade for Mathieu Garon of the Edmonton Oilers to light a fire under M-A's ass.
The 2009 playoffs for Fleury: 3-1, 2.09 and a .937 save percentage. Yes, the five-goal performance in the Philadelphia Flyers' lone win was a blight on the record and skews the numbers; otherwise, Fleury's been remarkable.
No more so than last night in the Penguins' 3-1 win in Philly. Good god, what a third period. Check out the shot chart from the NHL on the Flyers in the final 20 minutes:
Once his team secured a two-goal advantage, he refused to give the Flyers a momentum-changing marker. He was brilliant with the glove, tough in traffic and focused in total. He had that look of composed determination that characterizes Fleury when he is at his finest. On this night he certainly was, repelling scoring chance after scoring chance, making 45 saves in all, many of the highlight reel variety.
Indeed. He's in Neo from The Matrix mode in these wins, thinking three steps ahead of the shooter as the puck arrives in slo-mo "bullet time." Like his pad save on Mike Richards in the third last night: The Flyers were whipping the puck around the zone, and Fleury made the save with warm-ups nonchalance. In that arena, with that crowd, with those forwards buzzing his crease looking for a tying goal ... he was the story of the series last night.
It's a long, long, long road back to the finals for both the Penguins and the Red Wings. But Fleury and Osgood have been brilliant in an unanticipated way; if last year's finalists make a repeat performance, the challenging parallels in the goalies' journies back will be significant and impressive.