By PAT PICKENS
NEW YORK-- Marc-Andre Fleury sat at his stall, his pads still on, baseball cap backwards on his head, reflecting about another playoff failing.
For the sixth straight year, the Penguins won't hoist the Stanley Cup, and for the third time in that stretch, they were dispatched in the first round. The feeling was all too similar for Fleury and the Pens, as their season was ended by the New York Rangers for the second straight spring.
"We played a good team. We hung in there every night and kept it close," Fleury said after the Pens' 2-1 overtime loss Friday night in Game 5. "At the end of the day, we still lost."
But this time loss can't be pinned at all on Fleury.
The Quebecois goaltender who reached the Stanley Cup finals twice in his first five seasons endured a nightmarish four-year playoff stretch. After bad goals led to premature exits in 2010 and 2011, Fleury's playoff yips hit catastrophic levels in 2012 and 2013. He posted only a .834 save percentage in a disastrous, six-game loss in '12, then lasted only four games as the starter in 2013 before Tomas Vokoun salvaged the Pens' season with a run to the Eastern Conference finals.
"I've said it before, goalies don't have the opportunities, in the playoffs, when they go through that they don't get any more [opportunities] after that," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "Unfortunately that was tough for him that year."
But after a solid postseason in 2014, Fleury shined all year, posting a career-high .920 save percentage and an NHL-best 10 shutouts. After much talk of his previous playoff failings, Fleury was the Penguins' best player in five games against the Rangers this year. After surrendering a suspect rebound that turned into a Derick Brassard goal just 28 seconds into Game 1, Fleury allowed just 10 goals in 240 minutes and singlehandedly kept Pittsburgh afloat at points in Game 5.
His glove save on J.T. Miller's redirection in the second period held the Rangers off the board and was probably the best of his 34 saves -- though he made a couple of fantastic stops on Dan Boyle in the third with the score tied as well. Those stops enabled the Pens to push back and ultimately tie the score on Nick Spaling's goal late in the second.
"He doesn't have to prove anything to us," Crosby said. "He's doing that night after night for us, in the regular season and playoffs. He was great for us again tonight."
This could've been a completely different series if only Fleury's team was better around him. The Penguins had catastrophic injuries to their defense corps -- notably, Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maata -- but only managed eight goals in the five games. Crosby accounted for only two, both in Game 2, and superstar center Evgeni Malkin failed to score once.
That simply isn't good enough, particularly after the Penguins made big changes after a second-round exit a year ago -- firing both head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero. The new administration, head coach Mike Johnston and GM Jim Rutherford, have come under fire, with the latter mortgaging significant parts of the Penguins' future to try to get deeper in the present.
Only Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Letang, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, who missed all but 16 games this season with a blood clot in his lung, are holdovers from the 2009 Cup, while defenseman Rob Scuderi left for Los Angeles then returned. Suddenly, Fleury is 30, Crosby will be 28 on Aug. 7, Malkin will be 29 on July 31. The window for Pittsburgh is quickly closing -- particularly since it was in salary cap hell this season and will lose some of its low-cost role players to free agency.
But, the Penguins will be back. They're too talented, and even Fleury knows it.
"I don't see why not. We have a good group of guys here," said Fleury, adding while fighting off tears, "we played well, you know. Yeah, we'll see next year."
And for the first time in a while, Pittsburgh can feel comfortable in its goaltending.
Follow Pat Pickens on Twitter: @Pat_Pickens