Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Relationship with Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales helps explain Marc-Andre Fleury's resurgence

Mike Bales has a policy. Day or night, home or road, busy or not, the Penguins goaltending coach never turns off his cellphone.

"If any of my guys need to talk, they know where to find me," Bales said.

Earlier this season, when things weren't going so well for Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins' longest-tenured player took Bales up on his offer — several times, though they'd both prefer to keep the details of those conversations private.

Because return flights from road cities often land in the middle of the night, Penguins players and coaches disperse into separate cars, full of energy and thoughts still fresh from a game, a drive home to make.

It was common for Fleury to call Bales to talk, vent or seek counsel.

"He'd call me on the way home and we'd talk a little bit," Bales said. "Frankly, you don't have a lot of time to just talk sometimes with the way the schedule is."

As Fleury has become the story of the postseason — going from little used and essentially replaced during the regular season to the Penguins' best player entering Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Senators on Saturday — the airtight relationship between Fleury and Bales deserves dissecting.

No. 1, they legitimately like each other. No. 2, Bales is a former NHL goaltender and understands the rigors of the job.

No. 3, Bales dramatically improved Fleury's career, maybe even saved it. From the moment he was hired in August 2013, Bales has had a noticeable impact on the calmness of Fleury's game.

In the next three seasons, Fleury won 39, 34 and 35 games with a goals-against average no higher than 2.37 and a save percentage no lower than .915.

"He's been great," Fleury said. "Right off the bat, we clicked. We always had a good relationship. He's somebody who's easy to talk with. In good times, bad times. Technical points. In-your-head stuff. He has a lot of experience. I respect his opinion and him as a person."

Don't misinterpret any of this to mean that Bales is closer to Fleury than Matt Murray, who led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup last year after Fleury got hurt, entered this season as the No. 1 and then got hurt, and sidelined, warming up for the first game of the opening playoff series against the Blue Jackets. Bales treats both players equally, learning what makes them tick, helping them technically and lending a supportive ear after poor performances.

This season, that hasn't been easy for Bales.

For as much as general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan sold their goalie arrangement as "two No. 1 goalies" and something that gives the Penguins "a competitive advantage," the practical application fell to Bales, and it wasn't always perfect.

Imagine walking into work knowing you had to handle two employees, one who struggled the day before, another who could do the same job, did it better at times and would probably rather be doing it again.

Bales' honest, positive and straightforward approach has resonated with both players, especially Fleury.

"Ultimately, it's the player who has to do the job and play the game, but Mike Bales has been good for Marc," Rutherford said. "He's been here awhile, and he's done a good job with him. I can't speak to exactly what their relationship is and their communication on a regular basis, but they've worked very well together."

The communication between Bales and Fleury is evident at every practice and morning skate. Fleury likes to play jokes on Bales and often succeeds. After games, Bales hustles downstairs and visits with the starting goaltender.

Bales occasionally dives into a quick assessment, but not always. Sometimes it's better to let that stuff wait. Both guys are almost always smiling.

"I just deal with each goalie as an individual and try to help them be the best version of themselves," Bales said. "Having a prior relationship helps. In a year like this, maybe if (Fleury) and I didn't have a prior relationship and understanding, maybe it would have been a difficult situation.

"Marc's a great goaltender, but he's an even better human being. He's easy to deal with that stuff. He comes to the rink and tries to have a smile on his face every day. He's a great guy to be around."

Those late-night phone calls seem like a lifetime ago now.

After suffering through a stretch from Nov. 16-Dec. 22 where Fleury posted a .892 save percentage, he improved dramatically after the trade deadline, with a save percentage of .923.

As Bales has watched, he has seen Fleury improve, the better angles, challenging shooters with confidence, the controlled chaos between the pipes that enables Fleury to use his athleticism but not be out of control while doing it.

"He's had stretches like this before where he's played great," Bales said. "There's probably a little more attention on it just because it's the playoffs."

Praise for Fleury emanated from their dressing room after the Penguins' 2-0 series-clinching win against the host Capitals in Game 7 of their East semifinal Wednesday night at the Verizon Center.

"He played huge," forward Bryan Rust said.

"We're kidding ourselves if we don't give (Fleury) an awful lot of credit," forward Matt Cullen said. "He stole us more than one game this series."

"We're not in this position, moving on, if he doesn't play the way he did," star center Sidney Crosby said.

Only a few months ago, Fleury didn't know when his next start would be. And when he did play, the results often were horrible. Six goals on 36 shots Nov. 25 at Minnesota. Six goals on 34 shots Jan. 14 at Detroit, then not making his next start until Feb. 4.

After continuing to work and learn and adjust, Fleury has come out better for it, the relationship with his goaltending coach a crucial reason why.

"He's one of those players you couldn't be happier for, and how he's handled all situations here, going back to when he clearly was the No. 1 guy, from going through what he went through last year to where he is right now," Rutherford said. "This is a very determined man who stuck with it, and he's given everything he's got to the Penguins."

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