Bylsma's Tough Love Pays off with Fleury's Performance

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Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn't know what had happened to his franchise goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury.

There were bigger problems than Fleury's numbers, though those were worrisome. So terrific during training camp, Fleury had started the season 1-6-0. He had allowed 25 goals on 170 shots.

Worse, Fleury's familiar smile hadn't been seen for weeks.

It was the morning of Nov. 12. As that evening's home game against Tampa Bay approached, it was clear something larger than two points was at stake.

Seventeen months to the day from a career-defining win in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, Fleury needed to show his coach something -- that unique trait that he had seemingly mastered during five years as the Penguins' No. 1 goalie.

"My previous experience with Marc is that his response was always excellent," Bylsma said. "The perplexing part about his beginning ... that (lack of response) is what I had not seen."

A win today at Atlanta would pull the Penguins even with their 1995-96 brethren for the second-most wins in franchise history with 49. They will open the Stanley Cup playoffs at home this week, despite finishing the regular season having played 29 consecutive games without former scoring-champion centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

None of it happens had Bylsma and Fleury -- candidates for the Jack Adams (top coach) and Hart (most valuable player) trophies, respectively -- not survived their toughest times together despite seemingly being worlds apart.

"If it was a movie," Fleury said, "you'd be like, 'Aw, that's too good to be true.' "

A Montreal mess

Fleury looks no different technique-wise of late -- 35 saves Friday night, including 3 for 3 in the shootout, during a win at the New York Islanders -- than he did Nov. 6, when Bylsma pulled him after he allowed two goals on five shots at Phoenix, Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said.

Fleury's form is similar. His light, quick legs aren't any faster for pad saves. His pregame snack remains toasted bagel slices buried under peanut butter.

"Nothing has changed," Meloche said. "That one game against Montreal screwed him up in the head."

After allowing two late goals in a 3-2 home loss to the Canadiens on Oct. 9 -- neither of which, defenseman Brooks Orpik says, were Fleury's fault -- Fleury succumbed to mental wounds that were, by his admission, self-inflicted.

He began thinking too much, not about that loss but about a second-round playoff defeat in the spring to the Canadiens. The series ended with Fleury lasting barely a period in Game 7 and hearing the final hockey horn at Civic Arena from the bench.

So bothered was Fleury by that loss that he avoided his native Quebec Province during the summer. After a stellar training camp -- "He just looks awesome," forward Max Talbot said at the time -- Fleury appeared to have bounced back, as was his reputation.

With a revamped defense and new practice regimen, devised with Bylsma to render his ice time more efficient, Fleury seemed set for his best regular season.

Instead, five weeks in, he was off to a start that had those outside the organization wondering if he could recover to lead a club with Stanley Cup expectations. Hardly helpful was the perception that Bylsma didn't have his back.

Ties that bind

There is a rich irony in the presumption Bylsma mishandled Fleury by starting veteran backup Brent Johnson in seven of 12 games from Oct. 15 through Nov. 10. After all, it remains widely presumed that former coach Michel Therrien's mishandling of Fleury played a significant role in Bylsma's hiring.

Most Penguins players identified Therrien's riding of Fleury after almost every loss as the impetus for his firing Feb. 15, 2009.

Bylsma's player-friendly ways instantly earned him the anti- Therrien label, although he pulled Fleury at Washington in his fourth game as interim coach. …