Preview: Golden Knights host Blackhawks as Marc-Andre Fleury returns to Vegas for first time

The face of the franchise went 117-60-14 in four seasons with Vegas.

The Vegas Golden Knights continue their six-game homestand tonight with a matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks at T-Mobile Arena.

But it’s not just any old Saturday night in Las Vegas.

Tonight is different.

Tonight is special.

That’s because tonight marks the return of a franchise legend: Marc-Andre Fleury.

Tonight is about Fleury, all he accomplished as the face of the franchise and his relationship with the Golden Knights fanbase.

The concept of a beloved player returning to face a former team is not novel. After all, Fleury played the majority of his career with the Penguins, so this will not be his first emotional reunion. Fleury has had avid fans since long before the Vegas franchise was even a concept.

But his time and his role in Vegas were amplified by unforeseen circumstances and forces, which tragically includes the horrific attack on Oct. 1 and the response that followed.

As the face of the franchise, Fleury was a foundation of the bond that formed between the city and team, and his role in the most unparalleled inaugural campaign in modern sports history — particularly given the timing of the meteoric rise of the Golden Knights — was epic.

The situation surrounding his departure was, at best, unfortunate; it certainly was not a fitting end to a remarkable tenure in Vegas. The move seemed somewhat inevitable based on how the goalie situation had been handled, yet somehow it was simultaneously shocking.

But tonight is an opportunity for the fans to recognize, honor and celebrate what Fleury means to Vegas after all he has done for this franchise.

That being said, there also will be a hockey game tonight.

Two points are up for grabs in the first meeting between these clubs since Vegas eliminated Chicago in five games in the first round of the 2020 postseason (in the bubble).

The Knights are coming off a very impressive 5-1 win against the Rangers. It was a valiant bounceback response following one of the team’s worst efforts of the season.

It put Vegas back in the win column and marked the club’s first win of the new year, allowing the Knights to remain at the top of the Western Conference standings as they continue their playoff push.

The Blackhawks — who have been mired in controversy surrounding the investigation into the team’s alleged cover-up of sexual assault dating back to 2010 — find themselves in a different position, however, with their chances of reaching the postseason hovering in the single digits percentage-wise.

But there’s still talent on this team.

Patrick Kane is a perennial MVP candidate with game-changing ability, Seth Jones was a massive offseason acquisition tasked with the role of stepping in as a No. 1 defenseman and superstar Alex DeBrincat continues to shine as the future of this franchise.

Kane leads the team in scoring with 30 points in 30 games; DeBrincat is in second with 27 points in 34 games, and Seth Jones (not to be confused with brother Caleb) sits in third with 25. DeBrincat has 21 goals; the player with the second-highest total (Brandon Hagel) has eight.

The Blackhawks enter tonight’s game having dropped six straight, most recently suffering a 6-4 loss to the league-worst Arizona Coyotes.

The Blackhawks are 11-18-5, good for seventh place in the Central Division and 26th overall in the NHL standings.

Chicago has been outscored 21-9 in 2022, giving up at least four goals in each of the last four games.

Needless to say, the Blackhawks are in need of a win.

The same is true for Fleury, who is coming off back-to-back losses and has given up an average of four goals per game over his last four starts. Thursday’s game in Arizona was particularly rough, as he surrendered five goals on just 25 shots.

He is 9-11-2 with a 3.01 goals-against average, .907 save percentage and two shutouts this season (two more shutouts than the Golden Knights have managed).

But that’s still a far cry from his Vezina campaign last year in which he won 26 of 36 starts and maintained a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and six shutouts.

He’ll look to rediscover that magic touch when he guards the visitor’s cage at T-Mobile Arena for the first time since playing 192 regular-season games for the home team.

He may be one of just three goalies in the history of the NHL to reach 500 wins, but one thing Fleury has never done is face the Golden Knights.

That changes tonight.

In all likelihood, Robin Lehner will be at the other end of the rink, which carries its own set of mini narratives.

The Knights acquired Lehner from Chicago in February 2020, a move that raised eyebrows at the time, even if Fleury was in the midst of a down year.

When play resumed in the bubble, Pete DeBoer’s handling of the goaltending situation grew more and more perplexing; Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, then tweeted the infamous picture of Fleury with a sword through his heart.

Lehner and Fleury shared the crease for parts of two seasons as competitors but also as teammates and, seemingly, as friends. The two teamed up for a William M. Jennings Trophy last season, giving up the fewest goals in the NHL.

Ultimately, the Knights chose to keep Lehner and trade Fleury. The Knights are not a better team because of that decision; subtracting a Vezina winner and the backbone of the franchise doesn’t improve a team. It was a decision made with other factors in consideration, so it can’t be evaluated based on the results of one game or even one season.

The outcome of tonight’s game is simply that: the outcome of one game.

Tonight is more about Fleury returning than it is about the two facing each other, particularly given all the external factors.

It should be a night where everyone can take a moment to appreciate the extraordinary journey this team and this player have been on.

Fleury was beloved by his teammates just as he was by fans. He was the heart and soul of the team for many years and led the way in the adventure of the Golden Misfits.

Tonight is sure to be emotional for all involved.

How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM