Pittsburgh’s favorite goaltender is coming home.
The smiling kid with bright yellow pads and cat-quick reflexes who was the first building block of a perennial championship contender is back, but now as a smiling elder statesman. Tonight, Marc-Andre Fleury makes his return to PPG Paints Arena wearing a new kind of Vegas gold.
Fleury’s tenure in Pittsburgh had more sudden twists and turns than a Kennywood roller coaster. There was the early Stanley Cup, playoff benchings, springtime redemption and the emergence of Matt Murray. But throughout his tenure, he always had his teammates’ love. Eventually, he earned it from the fans, too (well, most of them. You know who you are).
The franchise may have officially turned around when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin arrived but the resurgence officially began when Craig Patrick snookered the Florida Panthers in a trade for the 2003 top overall pick. The Panthers got Nathan Horton. Patrick drafted Fleury.
Here are the top five moments of his Penguins career:
5. Fleury Laughs at Ovechkin, Part 1
Marc-Andre Fleury set the tone for the 2009 Round 2, Game 7. Tensions were high. It was the height of the Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin rivalry. The two best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, fought to go to the Eastern Conference Final.
Ovechkin had an early breakaway. A chance for momentum and confidence. A chance to finally end two decades of Capitals failure against the Penguins. And, Fleury took it all away. Then laughed at Ovechkin. The Capitals crumbled. The Penguins cruised to a blowout win.
Honorable Mention: Penguins Franchise Leader in Wins
Fleury is the leader in almost every statistical goaltending category in Penguins history, but his biggest edge is in wins.
Fleury’s first crack at breaking Tom Barrasso‘s mark of 226 career regular season wins came during the 2011-12 season finale. Fleury helped the Penguins build a 2-1 lead in that game, but he left early, and backup Brent Johnson gave up the lead. That handed Fleury the hockey equivalent of the no-decision.
Fleury saw too much of the Flyers in the weeks that followed anyway, as Philadelphia ousted Pittsburgh in six games during the first round. But Fleury would receive another shot at history against the Flyers.
He had to wait several additional months because of the lockout, but eventually, the Penguins opened the 2013 season against the Flyers and beat them 3-1 to win his 227th career game.
Fleury ended his Penguins tenure with 375 wins. His victory on Sunday moved him into 13th place all-time with 390 wins. Assuming Murray reaches 30 wins this season, he’ll still need 10 or 11 more 30-win seasons to surpass Fleury’s wins total with the Penguins.
4. Fight! Fight! Darn Refs
Oh, what might have been. Typically, a mid-January game would not be a notable memory. Not for any player. Except on this night, we almost saw magic. Fleury wanted it to happen. Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj wanted it to happen. And so did the remaining fans at the PPG Paints Arena.
What would have happened if the goalies tussled? Perhaps Fleury would have cracked a joke which made Budaj laugh, then dropped him. Perhaps they would have wrestled. We’ll never know, but for a couple minutes, it was awesome.
3. Fleury Taunts Ovechkin in a Game 7, Part 2
2017 Round 2, Game 7. Fleury did it again. With the Penguins on the verge of blowing a 3-1 series lead to the top-seeded Capitals, this had a chance to be Fleury’s last game ever with the Penguins. Instead, it was another incredible memory.
Fleury officially put his postseason demons to rest, as he was Pittsburgh’s best player in the 2-0 victory. Fittingly, he stopped all 29 shots. The most notable save, of course, came against Ovechkin. Immediately after making the stop, Fleury taunted No. 8 with a sweet stick stroke and his signature smile.
Classic Fleury. Late in the second period of a one-goal Game 7, he has a laugh after a huge save. The fans can’t breathe, Ovechkin is bend over having a hard time understanding how he didn’t score, and yet Fleury is just having fun.
While Pittsburgh did move on to the next round, this game marked the beginning of the end for Fleury. He started the next three games against Ottawa, but down 2-1 in the series, Mike Sullivan benched him in favor of Murray in Game 4.
2. Handing Matt Murray the Cup in 2017
Fleury didn’t play again after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but Murray shined. In 11 postseason appearances, he went 7-3 with a .937 save percentage, 1.70 GAA, and three shutouts. In the Stanley Cup Finals, Nashville didn’t score in the final 123 minutes.
Pittsburgh completed its quest to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in almost two decades. But it was also the end of Fleury’s time in the Penguins sweater, and his exit couldn’t have been more perfect.
After receiving his turn with the Stanley Cup, Fleury handed the trophy to the man who would replace him, signifying a passing of the torch in the Penguins net.
If there’s one other thing that comes to mind with Fleury other than his smile and desire to have fun, it’s his class. He couldn’t have handled the Murray situation any better.
Most of us wouldn’t react too kindly to a 21-year-old kid coming to take our job after excelling at it for more than a decade. And yet Fleury embraced Murray, took him under his wing and always put the team first. (Take note James Harrison!)
1. THE Save
It’s hard to top No. 2, but boy, this one has to take the cake.
This was the Stanley Cup, Game 7, in Hockeytown, at The Joe, against the Detroit Red Wings, who had won four of the previous 11 Stanley Cups. No, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Behind Max Talbot, the Penguins built an improbable 2-0 lead, but the young Pens were clinging to that lead for dear life. As Doc Emerick would say, it felt as though the ice were tilted towards the Pittsburgh end, and the Penguins were skating uphill.
With about six minutes left, the Red Wings cut the deficit to one. The Penguins were hanging on by a thread. But each and every time, Fleury responded, and none of his saves were bigger than the last one, until the greatest save of his career.
Fleury’s save on Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom in the waning seconds of Game 7 is the biggest stop in Penguins history. With the magnitude of the situation, it is arguably the biggest save in the history of the Stanley Cup Finals too.
Longtime fans will remember Fleury’s comments after the game. He spoke for every Penguins fan when asked what he was thinking when Lidstrom was wide open at point-blank range. He replied simply, “I was thinking, oh shit!”
No, it doesn’t get any better than that. Nothing – not even Crosby scoring his 400th goal against Fleury on Tuesday – will usurp this moment from No. 1.