Behind the bright smile and overall good-guy attitude is Marc-Andre Fleury, a man who probably laughs at the slightest hint of pressure thrown in front of him. Being a starting goaltender for over a decade and winning three Stanley Cups will probably make any situation look like second nature. Fleury’s been through it all, now in his 14th season, leading the Vegas Golden Knights to the top record in the Western Conference in this fairy tale that keeps on evolving.
But on Dec. 12, more than two months after sustaining his third concussion and having to watch his teammates go on the magical run that has somehow yet to falter, Fleury returned between the pipes in a unique situation — a team having already played four goalies in his absence would revert back to him, the face of the franchise, signaling the green light of what would be seen as a playoff push for the Golden Knights.
Fleury played well that night in his first game since early October, making 35 saves and putting together a performance that would result in victories on most nights. The Golden Knights lost 3-2 in a shootout against the Carolina Hurricanes, knowing in his mind that one more save would’ve resulted in a happier ending for the return of the guy most Vegas players say is the heart and soul of the locker room.
Little would anyone, let alone Fleury, know that this loss would propel the Golden Knights to one of the most unfathomable runs in the history of sports, and he would end up being the one behind such unimaginable success.
The Golden Knights reeled off eight straight wins — a record for a team in its first season — which included wins over his former team and back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins; the League-leading Tampa Bay Lightning in the game of the year; a 3-0 shutout victory against the Washington Capitals; a 3-2 overtime win against the division-rival Los Angeles Kings; and another 3-0 shutout against the Nashville Predators, the reigning Western Conference champions. That’s only a taste of what Fleury has done since returning from injured reserve. That body of work was good enough for Fleury to be named an All-Star for the third time on Wednesday along with teammate James Neal and coach Gerard Gallant on the Pacific Division team.
They’ve also won 10 of their past 11 games and have 60 points at the halfway mark.
“I didn’t expect this because I haven’t played too many games this year,” Fleury said on being named an All-Star. “I’m excited because it’s always a nice honor to be a part of. I just feel like there’s so many great players around the league and they only pick a few. It’s an honor to be a part of those guys.”
One has to wonder, as has been the case for this season, ‘What if he never got hurt?’ The proverbial writing appeared to be on the wall on Opening Night, Oct. 6 in Dallas, when Fleury made 45 saves to give the Golden Knights their first ever victory. He followed that up the next night with 27 saves in an overtime win at Arizona and a 31-save performance in the most emotionally-filled night the city of Las Vegas has ever been a part of.
But what’s more impressive is what Fleury has done in his past seven starts. You might want to sit down — he’s 6-1-0 with a 1.28 goals-against average and a save percentage of .958. Keep in mind, his season numbers are 9-2-1 with a 1.73 GAA and a save percentage of .945. It’s clearly the best stretch of hockey of his storied career. Tell that to the man himself, and he responds with, “Oh, thank you!” followed with a smile.
“I’m just proud, happy the way the team has been playing,” Fleury said after Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers. “To be where we’re at right now has been amazing. It was tough being out for a while, but I’m enjoying being out there, getting some wins and being a part of it.”
First half of Marc-Andre Fleury’s All-Star seasons
Whether or not Fleury has played enough games to be considered an All-Star shouldn’t be the question. He’s been All-World for the Golden Knights. Does Malcolm Subban play well enough against the likes of Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and get some wins? Does Maxime Lagace shut out Nashville or Washington? Fleury adds an extra element, a needed veteran presence, to the Golden Knights every start he makes. While the other goaltenders have done well in his absence, Fleury’s play in the crucial stretch of mid-December is the reason why playoffs are becoming a forethought in the Golden Knights’ locker room.
“He’s so confident, the way he’s playing,” Gallant said. “He gives you confidence and when you make mistakes, you get your goalie out there making big saves.”
Fleury’s return has given a jolt to the Golden Knights, going from expansion team, to fun story, to (God help us all) Stanley Cup contenders. Not only has he played well, but he’s doing such against teams that the Golden Knights will be compared to as the season draws closer to ending.
“Those are big games. Those are the kinds of games we’re going to see later on in the season toward the end,” he said. “We’re finding ways to win those games. It’s important, it’s good for the confidence and it’s good to know we can do that.”
Whether or not the public eye deems Fleury to be an All-Star is another debate for another day. There are the likes of William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault who are worthy of such praise. This season, however, has showcased a group of guys that are collectively playing like the next game has the Stanley Cup on the line. Fleury, once again, is giving a team hope to contend in the Spring.
Don’t tell him that, though.
“I’m fortunate,” Fleury said. “This wouldn’t be happening without the help of all of my teammates. They’ve helped me look good throughout the season. I thank them for that.”