The outpouring of love toward Marc-Andre Fleury from Penguins fans has been something to behold. “Flower” was part of three Stanley Cups with the Penguins and has a genuine, infectious, playful personality that endeared him to Pittsburgh folks.
But just to be clear, while Fleury surely will always hold his first organization — the one that drafted the goaltender first overall in 2003 – near to his heart, he has moved on. Fully and, at this point, happily.
Speaking press-conference-style at locker cleanout day after the Vegas Golden Knights capped an incredible inaugural season with a trip to the Stanley Cup final and a five-game loss to Washington, Fleury took a mild swipe at Penguins Nation.
“It’s weird. A couple years ago I was told I was getting too old to play,” Fleury, 33, said. “I still love it, still have a lot of fun. Certainly Vegas has given me this opportunity to do what I love. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. Hopefully, I can finish my career here.”
He did not seem at all angry. But you can probably shelve the notion, proposed by some, that Fleury might sign some sort of contract down the road that would allow him to retire as a Penguin. He has one more season on his contract.
A year ago, the Penguins had to make a decision going into the Vegas expansion draft about which goalie to protect. They chose to stick with Matt Murray, who is – this phrase has become part of Penguins lore – 10 years younger and $2 million a year cheaper.
From the moment he was selected by the Golden Knights last summer, Fleury became the face of the new franchise, on and off the ice. He and the club – the first major pro sports team in Las Vegas – were warmly embraced.
Although he missed some time early in the season because of a concussion, Fleury played in 46 games, won 29 games and had a career-best 2.24 goals-against average to help Vegas set all sorts of expansion team records and become one of the top sports stories of the year.
“It was a crazy year,” Fleury said. “From our team’s success to the support we’ve gotten from the fans. It was the best building to play in around the league. There were so many questions (about) bringing a hockey team to Vegas. I think the expectations were exceeded.
“It was a lot of fun. Great bunch of guys. To see how many people I meet on the street and they say that they like our team, they follow our team, they’re proud of the hockey team in Vegas, it means a lot.”
Fleury admitted that the loss to the Capitals is still a little too raw for him to do any in-depth reflection.
“It feels a little crazy that we’re not playing anymore,” he said. “It’s been a great season, great experience. I’m proud to be a part of this team and to have things turn out the way they did.”
Fleury has been to five Stanley Cup finals, losing to Detroit the first time and to Washington this most recent time. After the loss in 2008, the Penguins came back the next year to beat the Red Wings in the final.
“At that time, I was maybe thinking that we went to the final and we were going to go again and again and again,” Fleury said. “We had a young group of guys. I thought we could do this for many years.
“Over the years you quickly realize how hard it is and it’s not a given that because you make it, you’re going to make it the next year. I think the parity around the league is even better than it was. I’m just disappointed that we missed this opportunity.”
Fleury said he hopes general manager George McPhee can keep the team mostly intact for 2018-19.
Things will be different, of course.
“Next year everybody knows we can do well as a group, as a team. Right from the start, more will be expected,” Fleury said. “That’s fine. I think we can answer the bell and try to be successful during the season.”
There was one more bit of business for Fleury to discuss before he was dismissed for the summer.
During the warmup before Game 5, cameras caught Washington sniper, captain and soon-to-be Conn Smythe winner Alex Ovechkin plop his stick against Fleury’s pads as Fleury stretched against the boards near the center red line. Cameras also caught Fleury skating past and returning the, uh, love tap.
Fleury and Ovechkin, of course, were part of a noted divisional and playoff rivalry over more than a decade – one where the Penguins won every playoff series in the Fleury-Ovechkin era.
“I guess we’ve played our share of games against each other,” Fleury said with a small laugh. “We’re not, like, enemies or anything.
“I think the last four games he skated by the red line and always gave me a little tap on my pad, and they kept winning, so I was like, next time he touches me, I’m getting him back. So I did. I had a little laugh about it.
“Obviously, he’s a very good hockey player, always dangerous around the net. I can’t say I’m happy to see him raise the Cup because I’m not. It is what it is.”