Marc-Andre Fleury, at least for now, is relieved.
Of course he’s known about Thursday for months. It’s been drilled into his brain the minute the NHL schedule was released. Of course he knew, at some point, he would eventually have to face the Pittsburgh Penguins as the opposing goaltender. Sitting in front of his locker at T-Mobile Arena after playing the most important game of his short Vegas Golden Knights career, Fleury was quick to move on.
“It’s just another game, you know?” Fleury said. “It’s just two points. I tried to go for the win. Once you get out there and you see all those guys, you want to do well, have low pride.”
Truth be told, Fleury will have to deal with this hoopla in early February when he makes his first trip to Pittsburgh. What happened Thursday was only a microcosm of what’s to come, but it doesn’t diminish the grand importance of what Fleury and the Golden Knights accomplished at T-Mobile Arena against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, defeating the Penguins 2-1 on Thursday for their fifth win in six games.
Fleury had to spend two months watching the Golden Knights find ways to win without him. He wanted to be with his teammates more than be involved with the actual winning. But he also wanted to be back in time for Thursday, whether he’ll admit it or not, and he probably won’t admit that he wanted to beat the Penguins and show he still has enough in the tank at 33 years old to lead a team to the playoffs.
“I can’t imagine being a goalie and facing all the guys he’s faced since he came into the league,” said Golden Knights forward James Neal. “There has to be a lot of things going on in your head, things to focus on, focus on the shooters. He did a great job and made some big saves for us, stayed calm throughout the whole thing.”
Alas, the Golden Knights are 31 games into their first season and the wheels have yet to fall off the car. They have 42 points and have played one less game than the first-place Los Angeles Kings. That is the reality of the situation for Fleury and the Golden Knights at this current point in time. Fleury was outstanding Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, if not for a Brayden McNabb mishap in the first period. He’s motivated on a winning team, and that’s shown the last two games.
Now that Thursday has concluded and this emotional whirlwind of a week is done with, the focus goes back to the elephant in the room — the Golden Knights want to make the playoffs. That push begins now.
The efforts of Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace will not be overlooked. Starting three different goaltenders and finding a way to win 16 games without the face of the franchise in net will likely go down as one of the more unfathomable set of circumstances in the 100-year history of the National Hockey League. The kids took the car for a spin and returned it to the garage with no damage.
Fleury has the keys again. For a team that believed they wanted to make the playoffs at season’s start, the mission was to make sure Fleury was in the driver’s seat by the time he came back. The result now, after Fleury bettered his former protege Matt Murray, is a 20-win Golden Knights team that is nearing the halfway mark and has gone beyond exceeding expectations. What they’re doing, and have done, can’t be described.
“It’s about the guys coming to the rink every day to get better,” said Vegas coach Gerard Gallant about becoming the fastest team in its inaugural season to reach 20 wins. “We did have a lot of goaltending injuries and now we have the two goalies we planned on having all year long. We got them back and they’re playing well and working hard. I think they’re a confident team.”
This is the point that has been driven home, and must continue to be until it becomes synonymous with understanding what’s going on with the Golden Knights: Winning changes everything. It’s been the constant when Fleury was out, and it will be the constant with him back in the lineup. Winning provides a chance. We’re talking a different story if Vegas has 10 wins instead of 20.
Fleury’s back. The Golden Knights have a chance, and they need to make sure this car doesn’t go 100 mph into a brick wall. That’ll be tough to do with No. 29 at the helm.