There was a time not too long ago when Marc-Andre Fleury was considered a liability in the playoffs, the prime culprit that kept the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin-led Pittsburgh Penguins out of the Stanley Cup Finals following their 2009 win. Four straight years of a sub-.900 save percentage will do that to a guy, and Pittsburgh even found it necessary to have the Flower wear a ball cap and watch a 36-year-old Tomas Vokoun man the net for the bulk of the 2013 postseason.
Now, however, he appears closer to G.O.A.T. than goat. Oddly enough, this series very much resembles Tuukka Rask’s stellar Conference Finals against Fleury’s (or perhaps Vokoun’s) Penguins from 2013, when the Boston Bruins netminder held the Penguins to just two goals in a swift sweep. Two shutouts? Check. A double overtime win with just one goal allowed? Check.
But this is not about Rask, this is about Fleury. And unlike Rask, Fleury did not have the benefit of playing behind a strong defensive veteran core of Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference. Not one of the Golden Knights defensemen has received a single Norris Trophy vote, and the group is unlikely to do so this year.
In sweeping the Kings, Fleury managed to both make history for an expansion team, and add another plaudit on his growing Hall of Fame résumé.
Let’s start with the numbers; four wins, .977 SV%, 0.65 goals against average, two shutouts. According to Hockey Reference, Fleury saved 8.35 more goals than the average netminder would have in this series. Now, this number should be taken with a grain of salt because it does not factor in shot quality — and yes, the Knights did keep the Kings out of high-danger areas in most games — but it is wildly impressive nonetheless. When your offense scores just seven goals, the difference between three and 11 goals allowed is staggering.
In some ways, this year mirrors Fleury’s own work from 10 years ago; a top-six regular season performance in SV%, limited playing time due to injury, and, so far, anyway, stellar playoff performance. Although the Penguins would go on to lose the Cup Finals in 2008, Fleury was far from the reason, as he posted a .933 SV% and a 1.97 GAA. Not his fault he had to square off against the best possession team of all time in the Detroit Red Wings.
Now, is Flower going to keep up this torrid pace? Almost certainly not. But considering that their likely next opponents (the San Jose Sharks) are not as adept a team defensively — Martin Jones’ recent dominance notwithstanding — he may not need to. Fleury was strong against them in the regular season, and will be coming into the series with untold amounts of confidence.
The playoffs are so often a toss-up, and whether or not the Golden Knights bow out in the next round or continue on, that does nothing to diminish the otherworldly performance that Fleury put together against the Kings. Fleury may not want to be the face of anything, but he certainly appears to own the shoulders on which the Vegas fan base are leaning.
Whether or not Fleury can carry this club to the promised land is unclear, but should he continue to deliver this lights-out brand of goaltending, the Golden Knights stand as good a chance as any team to hoist the Stanley Cup come June.