Marc-Andre Fleury was the face of the Golden Knights long before the Golden Knights had any faces. The two worst-kept secrets in hockey were that 1)the Penguins were prepared to hitch their wagon to the decade-younger Matt Murray and would not protect Fleury in the upcoming expansion draft, and 2)Vegas would select Fleury, the closest thing to a big name and a recognizable face that would be available in the draft, and an eminently serviceable goaltender. The key word being “serviceable.”
Fleury, in his 14 years in Pittsburgh, was only very occasionally great, most often perfectly fine, and in the playoffs, as often as not, outright bad. Even in each of the last two runs, both of which ended with Stanley Cups, Fleury was benched for Murray. His time was up. Semiretirement in the desert with a bad and irrelevant expansion team awaited. At least he’d sell some jerseys, everyone figured.
“It was time,” Fleury said way back in June, with an optimism I find it hard to believe that even he really felt. “I can share my experiences, my playoff experiences, with my teammates here. We can be good right away. We can win games right away.”
And here we are. The Vegas Golden Knights are in the Western Conference Final, and Marc-Andre Fleury had the best season of his career and the best postseason of his life, at age 33. Every year some team goes deep in the playoffs with to a goalie standing on his head, but who would have ever thought, a year ago, that that’d be Fleury in Vegas?
“It was maybe a little bit of a shock,” Fleury admitted Sunday night, after Vegas’s 3-0 win to eliminate the Sharks in six. It was his fourth shutout of the postseason, in 10 games. He has a playoff save percentage of .951 and a 1.53 GAA, both league highs. Those numbers follow on regular-season figures of .927 and 2.24 (third in the league and tied for tops in the league, respectively, among goalies with 30 starts).
The Sharks hit iron four times last night, which, if you subscribe to the team-of-destiny theory, could serve as evidence that it was one of those games for Fleury, but he also racked up 28 saves, including withstanding a first period dominated by San Jose.
To clarify a line from three paragraphs ago, the Golden Knights are not winning because Fleury is standing on his head. He is playing great and they are playing great, independently of each other (insomuch as teammates don’t feed off each other, which they do). On Sunday, the Vegas forecheck was utterly dominant, as usual, while the Golden Knights had just a single giveaway all game.
“I thought we were the hardest working team in the league before this series,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said, and depending on how you want to read that, DeBoer is either implying that something about the Knights’ play neutralized San Jose’s effort, or he’s conceding that Vegas works harder.
They’re going to need to keep it up and for everything to keep going right in the conference final, against either Winnipeg or Nashville, the survivor of which will be the clear best team left alive. But what do you know? Vegas won the season series against both teams. Nothing about this postseason has been a fluke, at least no more than an entire season can be a fluke.
But it all comes back to Fleury, whose Penguins won it all only when he was either great, or they had a better option. I do not know why or how Fleury is peaking now, at this age, on this team, and he doesn’t seem to either. He’s sure enjoying it, though.
“He played unbelievable,” said Knights forward James Neal of his once teammate in Pittsburgh and now Vegas. “His smile describes him best. You look in his mask and see all his teeth, that ear-to-ear smile.
“He’s a great guy. You talk more about the person than the goalie, and he’s an unbelievable goalie. So athletic, battles for every puck. He deserves everything he gets. I’m proud of him. He’s awesome.”