Last night the Pittsburgh Penguins shut out the Carolina Hurricanes and won the game 3-0.  Brent Johnson was in net for the Penguins.  On Friday night the Penguins lost 3-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers.  Marc-Andre Fleury was in net.  It’s a pattern that has repeated itself all season.

The Penguins are winning hockey games with Brent Johnson.  They’re losing with Marc-Andre Fleury.

In six games this season, Johnson has a 5-0-1 record.  His 1.16 GAA is second in the NHL behind Tim Thomas.  The same can be said for his .960 save percentage.

Marc-Andre Fleury has also played six games this season.  He has a 1-5 record, a 3.35 GAA and a .863 save percentage.  Obviously none of those numbers are anywhere near the league leaders.

When you look at those statistics, there really isn’t a controversy at all.  Brent Johnson is performing much better than Fleury is this season.

However, the controversy comes from from the players’ salaries.

Marc-Andre Fleury makes $5 million per season and is signed with the Penguins until 2015.  Brent Johnson makes $600,000 and is signed until 2012.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are right up against the NHL salary cap, with about $600,000 in cap space according to Cap Geek.  The Penguins can simply not afford to have Marc-Andre Fleury sit on the bench and collect $5 million.

And so there is the controversy.  As good as Brent Johnson plays, he is not the team’s starting goaltender.  Not for the long run at least.  Johnson will likely get the majority of starts for the next while due to the fact that he is the proverbial “hot hand,” but that’s not a long term solution for the team.

Pro Hockey Talk put together some insightful numbers on the situation.  When you look at their numbers, you can see that both goaltenders have been placed in very similar situations this year.  They’ve seen a relatively similar number of shots each game and the Pens have scored a similar number of goals in front of both goaltenders.  Johnson has just outperformed Fleury to this point.

However, regardless of the numbers, the truth is that Marc-Andre Fleury will ultimately need to play better – much better – in order for the Penguins to succeed.  He is their goaltender for the foreseeable future.  So what is wrong with him right now?

Obviously this is not an easy question to answer.  If it was, the problem would have been resolved by now.  Fleury has always gone through periods where is plays without much confidence.  During those times he gives up huge rebounds, makes mistakes and the Penguins lose hockey games.  However, he usually bounces back from these periods quite quickly.

For example, in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, the Penguins were beaten 5-0 in game five in Detroit.  Fleury put on a terrible performance and was pulled from the game.  However, in games six and seven Fleury came back with two of the strongest performances of his career.  The Pens won both of those two games by a score of 2-1 and won the Stanley Cup.

Fleury bounced back then, so why is he not bouncing back now?  He’s been given several chances to succeed this season, and has not performed as he has in the past.  He’s only 25 years old, so it doesn’t make sense that he would have regressed this much suddenly.

Marc-Andre Fleury is an outstanding athlete and a talented goaltender.  His biggest mistakes are mental ones, and it feels like a lack of mental toughness is causing his issues this year.  Will he be able to get over whatever is harming his game and return to form, or will the Pens need to rely on Brent Johnson this season?