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Marc-Andre Fleury caps off hectic season with well-deserved Vezina Trophy

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It was a season where anyone could have been deserving. It feels right that it was 29 in grey.

Montreal Canadiens v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Five Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

Marc-Andre Fleury had a talk with Martin Brodeur.

This would be a thrilling chat any other time. Except it was less than 24 hours removed from being eliminated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens.

Not the ideal time to find out you just won your first Vezina Trophy.

“I was maybe not in the best mood that morning,” said the 36-year-old Fleury.

It’s not the giant silver trophy he’s hoisting, but it’s still a trophy that Fleury deserves just as much. The Golden Knights goaltender won his first Vezina on Tuesday, the award given to the top goalie in the NHL as voted by the 31 general managers.

Fleury received 14 of the 31 first-place votes and finished nine points ahead of Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“It’s such an honor, obviously just to still be playing right now,” Fleury said. “When you look at the list of guys who have won this trophy, I love watching and idolized watching them. It’s an honor to be amongst them.”

Fleury has dazzled and wowed spectators for 17 years. Throughout his journey to winning the Stanley Cup three times and to be the third winningest goalie in NHL history, the only thing that eluded Fleury’s storybook career was the league’s top distinction for netminders.

The odds seemed astronomical to win the Vezina when the Golden Knights picked Fleury in the 2017 expansion draft from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fleury admitted he didn’t expect to win a lot. Fleury said he would’ve been skeptical if someone asked him four years ago if he’d win 100 games with the franchise. But he did it anyway.

Fleury has been the staple holding the winning Vegas culture for four years. There’s a case that he should’ve won the Vezina in Year 1 if not for that concussion against Detroit. But he was the man to lead the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 and has been the backbone through almost all of Vegas’ playoff runs to this point.

“It’s been such full of surprises; just from how much the fans are behind us, makes the game so fun to play in, the success our team has had since Day 1. The group of guys we do it with every year; the chemistry is awesome,” Fleury said. “I couldn’t have bet winning this or winning so many games in Vegas four years later, but it’s been fun, and an honor to get this trophy today.”

No matter who won any trophy, it was going to be deserved. That rings especially true for the Vezina. Between Fleury, Vasilevskiy and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer, the three finalists combined for 118 starts in a condensed 56-game season. Fleury’s 36 was the fewest, but the Vezina was won when Robin Lehner missed a month with his concussion.

Fleury went 11-5-0 and started 16 of 17 with Lehner out from Feb. 11 - March 17. He recorded three shutouts, two of them against the Avalanche, and posted a .936 save percentage. It was this 34-day span where if hockey writers could vote, they should’ve put Fleury at the top of their ballot.

Despite losing five of his next seven starts upon Lehner’s return, Fleury ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak.

To play goalie, during this crazy season, and to play as well as he did, you had to have an elite season. That stretch also helped he and Lehner to win the William M. Jennings Trophy after allowing a League-low 124 goals.

“It was a tougher season mentally, playing so many games,” Fleury said. “I was very lucky to have such a great relationship with Robin and to be able to support each other throughout the season, and get some rest too because Robin played a lot of games. That helps in such a condensed season. It’s good to always support each other, talking about goals, talking about plays.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s this year or another year, but I feel like it’s been tougher for most people around the world, and I just feel fortunate we were still able to play hockey and still do what we love. It’s nice to have this trophy.”

The decision to move on from Fleury was not an easy one for the Penguins. They probably wish Fleury was still in town, putting up numbers like this and winning a Vezina for them like they hoped he would when taking him No. 1 overall in 2003.

That same decision could face the Golden Knights. Fleury, who turns 37 in December, enters the final year of a three-year extension he signed with Vegas after Year 1. Not even he knows how much hockey he has left; owner Bill Foley has said on the record he wants Fleury to retire in Las Vegas.

It’s not often Vezina Trophy winners have clouded futures. That’s not deserved. But what is deserved is Fleury winning this award. For now, the focus goes toward that.

“I still feel like if I have fun playing, or if I don’t have fun playing, that’ll be it,” Fleury said. “If I can still help my team and enjoy what I do everyday, come to the rink have fun, have a smile, and be with the guys, that’s what’s going to dictate when I hang them up or keep playing.”