COLUMN: Fleury Never Lost His Smile

The Penguins took game one from the Capitals at Verizon Center in our nation’s capital on Thursday night. It was a huge win that gave home-ice advantage to the Penguins, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. The goaltender who’s got that charm-filled smile also has a lot of poise.

He withstood 35 shots on goal, saving 33 of them. The defense was also solid in front of him, blocking 29 shot attempts. With a little more than three minutes to go in the final period and trying to preserve a 3-2 lead, the scramble in front of the net made a Black Friday crowd at Ross Park Mall look like a controlled military unit. Some how, Fleury (and company) were able to keep the puck out of the net, despite being ran over by Alex Ovechkin, who registered one of the Capitals’ two goals Thursday. It was one of many brilliant moments the Flower had Thursday.

Even though save of the night probably went to Jake Guentzel (and deservedly so), it doesn’t take away from the fact that Fleury was amazing. Neither goal he allowed can really be pinned as “his fault.” Alex Ovechkin, the most prolific goal-scorer of his generation, was given time and space at his favorite spot on the ice. He had more than enough time to pick a corner and fire away. The other goal was far more hideous from the Pens’ side of things. Evgeny Kuznetsov was left wide open on the weak side and former-Penguin Matt Niskanen found him on a crisp, cross-ice pass, giving Kuznetsov a wide-open net.

The most crucial aspect of this performance is that it was a road game against the team who boasted the best home-ice record in the regular season. Fleury struggled mightily on the road this year. Here’s a look at his home/road splits:

Home: 14-3-2, 2.52 GAA, .928 save percentage 
Road: 4-7-5, 3.58 GAA, .887 save percentage

Yeah, that’s about as night and day as you can get, and in order for the Penguins to have a prayer to beat Washington in back-to-back years, Fleury has to play at an elite level, especially on the road. If he has more performances like game one, he gives the Penguins a great chance of disposing the President’s Trophy winner in consecutive seasons.

Last season, Fleury’s starting job had been won by rookie goaltender Matt Murray, whose poise and efficient play had given the Penguins the stability in net. Fleury had been sidelined with a concussion and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be the starter until Murray’s play was so good, it was impossible to take him out. Ever since then, Fleury has been thought of as the number two goalie in Pittsburgh. Rumors flung around from then until the trade deadline of this year that Fleury would be traded out of town so the Penguins could protect Murray over Fleury in the upcoming Expansion Draft this offseason, where only one goalie can be protected. When most everyone was thinking that Fleury should have been traded by the deadline, General Manager Jim Rutherford decided to hold onto him, stating that the Penguins would need him down the road.

Maybe Rutherford can make a living as a psychic on the side.

It was clear that Fleury was uncomfortable with the goalie situation all season. He had been used to starting 60 games a year for so long, and now this year, that rhythm was gone, and eventually the starting job given to Murray.

Fleury’s smile didn’t dissipate. He just kept being himself.

Now, the team needs him. Now this year, the tables have turned. Murray’s the one out with an injury (also with no end in sight) and Fleury is the only chance the Penguins have in net that can lead them to another Stanley Cup.

Fleury’s play against Columbus in the first round followed the same trend from the regular season: great at home, shaky on the road. This wouldn’t fly against Washington. He knows that. Thursday night showed that Fleury not only still has it, but it also showed that this is a man his team believed in, from his teammates all the way up to the front office.

Marc-Andre Fleury is an amazing goaltender. He deserves every good thing from every person associated with the Penguins. He could’ve pouted last year sitting on the bench, but he didn’t. He could’ve demanded a trade for a better situation for himself, but he didn’t. His loyalty is unsurpassed and he deserves the backing of every single fan, player, and executive. And if this is the way he goes out, playing his heart out and leading the Penguins to a fifth Stanley Cup, it’ll be a better tear-jerker for the ages.

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