Bob Grove said it best this morning while setting the scene for tonight’s matchup. The hockey gods have smiled upon us. It’s the Pittsburgh Penguins’ old guard — and, arguably the catalyst to a generation of winning ways — versus the young, two-time Stanley Cup Champion who holds the future of the franchise in the palm of his hand. Marc-Andre Fleury will face his old friends while Matt Murray will battle his former mentor and role model.
And make no mistake, this indeed is a duel between Fleury and Murray.
The Las Vegas Golden Knights have been the talk of the NHL season with their surprising start. Currently, they hold a playoff spot in the Western Conference while the two-time defending Cup champs are presently out of the postseason picture in the East. This season should have been a year of excitement but low expectations for Vegas fans and instead, they’re looking at a chance to witness postseason hockey in their inaugural season. One of the biggest reasons for that accomplishment?
Simply put… Offense.
The Golden Knights, with Fleury on the shelf for two months after suffering a concussion, had a stable of goalies step up to the occasion. They seemingly couldn’t keep anyone healthy, but no matter who manned the crease, they played admirably and provided this surprisingly potent group with a chance to win on a nightly basis. It almost hasn’t mattered, though, considering how powerful they’ve been up front.
VGK forward’s success is precisely why tonight’s Fleury vs. Murray headline carries even more weight.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Let this sink in for a moment. According to Corsica.Hockey, The Golden Knights — comprised mostly of pieces that were considered expendable by others — are ranked fourth in the NHL for goals per hour during even-strength play at five-on-five. They’re a middle of the pack team for shots per hour and boast a 9-percent shot percentage, which is good for seventh in the league.
In simpler terms, Vegas is scoring at an impressive rate, and it isn’t an anomaly. This team can finish.
On the other side of the ice, the Penguins are dead last in the NHL for five-on-five save percentage. We’re past blaming those numbers on Antti Niemi’s short, horrific tenure in a Pittsburgh sweater and now the question is… What gives?
Pittsburgh is allowing the fifth highest amount of high-danger shot attempts in the league and Murray — returning to action tonight for the first time since November 27 — has been quite average at stopping shots from those areas. You can’t pin all their struggles on him, and it’s impossible to deny that he’s been excellent on multiple occasions but ultimately, considering the current makeup of this team, he’ll have to be better. Maybe that’s a lot to ask, but it’s no different than what the Penguins asked of the man he’ll be staring down at the other end of the ice during his time here.
Fleury was tested when the Golden Knights faced Carolina in his return to action on Tuesday, with the Hurricanes dominating play for most of the contest. ‘The Flower’ was up to the task and carried Vegas to a shootout loss in a game that shouldn’t have made it past regulation. It was a timely return, and a perfect warmup for his first go at facing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel in meaningful game action.
Whether or not it gives him a slight advantage over Murray — after a little over two weeks off — remains to be seen.
Thanks for the Memories
While it’s strange to see any former player in another uniform, emotions will be at an all-time high tonight with someone as iconic as Fleury in the opposing goal. For fans, it means rooting against one of the most respected, well-liked Penguins in history. He was a pivotal piece to the struggling Penguins returning to their championship form of the early 90’s. He’s been a household name in the Steel City for 14 years and has provided hockey fans with some of the most memorable saves we’ll ever witness. However…
You should be rooting for the Penguins to light him up tonight.
I’ve had the opportunity to cover Fleury on multiple occasions. Even in his final days as a Penguin — he still catered to media and his fans alike–including his autograph signing at the Dick’s Sporting Goods in Cranberry, Pa just hours before last summer’s expansion draft. He was a joy to speak with, interview, interact with, and watch. You will not find a better person or professional athlete. And still, he’d expect nothing less from the Penguins’ faithful than wanting to see their team light up the scoreboard during their first trip to Vegas. Points are becoming more and more crucial as Pittsburgh is attempting to right the ship, and tonight provides an opportunity to beat a good team while bringing themselves within two points of the Metropolitan Division leader — the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Fleury versus Murray isn’t just a catchy headline; it’s legitimately how this game will play out. Murray has to be better if the Penguins plan on leaving Vegas with two points and Fleury, despite his fondness for the city of Pittsburgh and his former team, will do everything in his power to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Thanks for the memories, Marc-Andre, but the city of Pittsburgh is best served if the Penguins spoil this reunion for you.