Three players, three different positions, the same junior league. A trio of French-Canadian players drafted and developed by the Pittsburgh Penguins were key to their first Stanley Cup since the early 90s, and each had their own special motivation.
G Marc-Andre Fleury
Born: 28/11/1984 (24)
Selected: 1st round, 1st overall (2003)
2008-09 Playoffs: 16-8-0, 2.61 GAA, 0.909 Sv%
Being a high-paid athlete is the dream occupation of millions of young men the world over. From the outside, things can look great. But inside, the same forces that drive the lucky few to succeed can tear them apart. Marc-Andre Fleury knows what that's like. Despite being a former top pick and now multi-millionaire, the one thing no one can buy- a championship- had haunted him throughout his career.Until yesterday.
Let us count the ways:
2003 World Junior Championships: To Fleury's credit, there was little more he could do in the Gold Medal match- or the tournament, for that matter- as Canada fell 3-2 to the Russians. However, that the winning goal came a) with under ten minutes to go and b) after squandering a 2-1 lead planted the seed for 2004.
2004 World Junior Championships: By now, almost every hockey fan is well-aware of the debacle that was 2004. Up 3-1 against Team USA by the mid-point of the game, Canada looked to be in cruise control for Gold. But some sloppy play set the stage for a tied game and one of the most embarrassing plays in hockey history. Fleury's seeming inability to win was latched onto and shaken for all it was worth in the wake of the 4-3 loss.
2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Every rookie encounters jitters in their first playoff appearance, and it's unfair to think otherwise about goalies. But as Pittsburgh's starter since the previous year, more was expected of Fleury as the eventual finalist Ottawa Senators rolled to an easy five-game series win. Fleury started all five games, and his final stats were not pretty: along with a 3.76 GAA, he failed to stop more than 88% of the shots directed his way.
2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Pens and Fleury seemed to have righted the ship as the young team blossomed during last spring's playoffs. Fleury's strong play early and the work of Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa helped the Pens reach the Finals for first time in 16 years. Fleury, in particular, look unbeatable, allowing just twelve goals combined during the Eastern Quarters and Finals. But again, those hopes were crushed; while Fleury had little run support early in the series, a number of soft goals ultimately stole what little momentum the Penguins could generate. In a stunning stat, 'MAF' allowed 17 goals in the Finals.
Game 5 of the Finals looked to be the beginning of the end once again for Fleury; however, his heroics in Games 6 and 7- particularly in the final moments of last night's contest- vanquished his reputation as a big-game failure.
D Kris Letang
Born: 4/24/1987 (22)
Selected: 3rd round, 62nd overall (2005)
2008-09 Playoffs: 23 GP, 4-9-13, +1, 26 PIM
There are bigger things than losing hockey games, and despite his young age, Kristopher Letang knows that well. It was one year ago that Letang lost former teammate and best friend Luc Bourdon in a motorcycle crash.
Letang immediately gained both a sense of purpose, and a new appreciation for life; after seeing his best friend's sleek $11,000 Suzuki GSX-R1000, Letang had considered buying his own. Both being inexperienced riders looking to spend some of their new-found wealth, it very easily could have been Letang who lost his life on a remote highway.
As it was, with the task of both remembering and honoring his friend at the front of his mind, Letang was a driving force behidn Pittsburgh's success in both the regular season and playoffs. A bit of a wild card in junior due to his offense-first game, 2008-09 saw Letang unite his tremendous skating and offensive instincts with his ability to anticipate the play. The end-result was a team blue line-leading 33 points, and 13 more in the playoffs- one off of Sergei Gonchar.
C Max Talbot
Selected: 8th round, 234th overall (2002)
2008-09 Playoffs: 24 GP, 8-5-13, +8, 19 PIM
A team or a player can want to win, can dream about winning, can practice every day for every hour. But as former dynasty Oiler Dr. Randy Gregg so succinctly said, one needs to lose in the most painful ways imaginable before they can be a winner. That attribute was well-honed into Maxime Talbot even before he took a step on NHL ice. While he had enjoyed great personal success in the QMJHL, winning a pair of league playoff MVP awards, he and the Hull/Gatineau Olympiques came short in their quest for a Memorial Cup both years. Similarly, while Talbot was a fan favorite and wore a letter at the World Junior Championships, the Canadians only got as far as Silver. It was that culmination of near-misses and heart-breaks that ultimately drove him to come through on the biggest stage in the biggest game in professional hockey.
Talbot's fantasy upside is minimal- at least in the regular season. But like many role players, his true contributions occur when it matters most. Just look at this regular season/playoff PPG split:
2002-03 (QMJHL): 1.5, 2.2
2003-04 (QMJHL): 1.9, 1.8
2005-06 (AHL): 0.76, 0.81
2007-08 (NHL): 0.41, 0.53
2008-09 (NHL): 0.29, 0.54