By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH — Embattled Pittsburgh Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year.
The much-maligned Fleury looked strong, stopping all 28 shots faced to earn his 250th career regular-season victory and 24th shutout during a 3-0 season-opening win against the New Jersey Devils Thursday at Consol Energy Center.
“I believe Marc-Andre Fleury is a very good goalie,” Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think he’s proven it time and time again. He’s won a ton of games and backstopped this team through wins the last six or seven seasons.”
Sidney Crosby and newly-signed Chuck Kobasew found the back of the net while Craig Adams also scored his 50th career goal in his 800th career game, and Pascal Dupuis added an assist in his 200th consecutive contest.
“We have a lot of confidence in (Fleury),” Adams said. “I was really happy for him because he’s taken a lot of heat.
“We know what kind of a goalie he is. I have a Stanley Cup ring, probably because of him. He’ll always be a great goalie to me.”
The Penguins scored twice in less than three minutes, on goals by Kobasew and Crosby, to take a two-goal lead midway through the first period.
That was all Fleury needed.
“He was solid, just like we expect from him,” Crosby said. “If he doesn’t have to answer questions about it for a couple days, I’m sure that’s nice for him.
“He made some stellar saves and I’m sure it feels good for anybody no matter what you’ve gone through.”
The Devils slowly swung the momentum midway through the second period, with a 9-3 advantage in shots, but were unable to cut into the Penguins’ lead.
Fleury was the reason, coolly brushing aside a number of New Jersey tries for his first shutout in a season opener since a 4-0 win against Philadelphia in 2006. He became the 47th goaltender in NHL history — and ninth active — to reach 250 victories.
“I’m happy to go in there and get a win,” Fleury said. “It’s a long season, though. The first one is done and I’m looking forward to playing the next one.”
It’s a stark contrast to the confidence-shaken Fleury who was yanked in favor of Tomas Vokoun after posting a 3.40 goals-against average in the opening round of the playoffs. Bylsma confidently stood behind his goaltender following a dismal postseason and another early exit from the playoffs, proclaiming Fleury the guy.
“We fully expected him to do that for our team coming into the season,” Bylsma said. “We’re one game in, but he was excellent.
“He had to come up with some big saves. I don’t think that game was not expected.”
The Devils weren’t able to rattle Fleury on Thursday as the beleaguered Pens’ goaltender stood tall, stopping all 13 third-period shots faced, including a smooth pad save on Adam Henrique during a penalty shot.
He denied Devils’ center Damien Brunner from the top of the crease, swiped at a cool, disappearing behind-the-back glove save on Travis Zajac’s shot from the right circle, and lifted his pad while lying on the ice to rob Ryane Clowe during a late power play.
“I heard it hit the post, and I felt it in my back, so I tried to reach as quickly as possible back there,” Fleury said about his glove save on Zajac.
Fleury will have to carry the load for the long haul after it was announced last week that Vokoun will miss the next 3-6 months with blood clots in his hips. Fleury, who spent a portion of the off-season working with a sports physiologist to help him regain his confidence, appears ready to do the job.
“I felt good,” Fleury said. “We’ve been working hard through the summer and training camp and I’m glad it was finally a real game.”
Kobasew netted the Penguins’ first of the season, banking the rebound of a Brandon Sutter shot between Cory Schneider’s pads. Schneider, acquired from Vancouver in June for a first-round pick, made 18 saves, getting the nod over future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur and ending the legendary goaltender’s streak of 18 straight season-opening starts.
Kobasew, meanwhile, cracked the Penguins’ roster out of training camp, earning a one-year contract on a professional tryout after he scored twice in five preseason games. He spent the past two seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, registering 23 points in 95 regular-season games.
Crosby struck less than three minute after Kobasew, flipping a sharp wrist shot over Schneider’s glove during a two-on-one with Dupuis. Adams added insurance midway through the third, firing a wrist shot from the top of the slot.
“It was nice to see (Adams) score in his 800th game,” Crosby said.
The Penguins managed the win Thursday without several key contributors.
Defenseman Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy finalist who inked an eight-year extension worth $58 million in the off-season, missed the game with a lower body injury while All-Star forward James Neal left in the first period, aggravating an ailing upper body injury.
On the opposite end, Penguins’ defensive prospect Olli Maatta made his NHL debut. The 19-year old Maatta, who made the team out of camp, is the youngest defenseman to start the season with the Penguins since Letang in the 2006-07 season.
“I was pretty nervous, but guys told me, ‘You have to enjoy it, it’s your first game, there’s not going to be another first game in your career,’” Maatta said. “Fleury did a good job making the saves he needed to make and he was awesome today.”
NOTES: It’s the first time the Penguins played a regular-season game on the same day the Pittsburgh Pirates played a post-season game since Oct. 13, 1992…The Penguins host Buffalo Saturday and Carolina Tuesday, the fourth time in history the team started the season with a three-game homestand.