OTTAWA – When it came time for Marc-Andre Fleury to design a new mask this season, he went with what felt right.
That it didn’t focus on him, or one of his passions, but rather the teammates who have made his 14 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins special was pretty telling. There were shout-outs for Ramzi Abid and Colby Armstrong and Alain Nasreddine and Hal Gill and more than a dozen others.
It was the mark of a selfless man.
“He’s always got a smile on his face,” Sidney Crosby said Thursday, and that included the morning after Fleury was pulled from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.
There may not be a more well-liked person inside the entire Penguins organization.
“He’s got a really, just, a good way about him,” said Crosby. “He’s a supportive teammate and cares a lot about all the guys around him. I think that guys see that, and you see what kind of teammate he is in different situations, and he loves playing.”
We have witnessed arguably his biggest show of commitment to the team over the last 14 months, starting when rookie Matt Murray stole his job while he was out with a concussion and helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup last June, and including this regular season when he spent more time than usual watching from the end of the bench.
Whatever frustration, whatever anger and disappointment that brought on, was always kept away from the rink. We before me. Teammates know Fleury was hurting, but never saw him become a distraction.
“He’s the same guy,” said Olli Maatta. “That’s pretty remarkable.”
All of which brings us to the unexpected turn of events this spring, with Murray going down to injury in the warmups before the playoff opener against Columbus, and Fleury reclaiming his crease. The nine wins and .924 save percentage that followed, the shutout in Game 7 at Washington and now the possibility he gives way to Murray after allowing four goals on nine shots here in Ottawa on Wednesday night.
There was no official word on that front – Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he’d name his Game 4 starter on Friday morning – but it loomed as a significant moment.
After everything that’s happened, and with a likely off-season departure looming, the 32-year-old left reporters with the impression that he expects to play. He was asked how disappointed he would be if that wasn’t the case and responded: “We’ll see when it happens.”
It would be virtually unprecedented to replace a goalie this deep into the playoffs for anything other than an injury.
Then again, the Penguins situation is unique. We are only a month away from the NHL Expansion Draft and, even if general manager Jim Rutherford could work out a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights to protect both goaltenders, Murray’s new contract is due to kick in next season.
You wouldn’t want to tie up $9.5 million in your crease. You also probably wouldn’t want to enter another season with two guys who believe they’re a No. 1 and want to play.
There is still a dream scenario where Fleury leads the Penguins to a second straight Stanley Cup and gets chosen as the one to stay. Maybe they’d move Murray, who at age 22 would command a better return, and elevate the highly rated Tristan Jarry to be Fleury’s backup.
It’s not the most likely outcome, but it’s the kind of thing you hold out hope for after spending your entire NHL career in a city you love.
Of course, you need to keep playing for it to come true.
Fleury acted like the starter during a Thursday afternoon practice at the University of Ottawa – occupying one net by himself while Murray and Jarry split time in the other. But Sullivan wasn’t planning on letting any of the goalies in on the plan until later in the day and didn’t sound particularly sentimental about the decision.
“Well I think we have loyalty to our whole group, I don’t think it’s any one particular guy,” he said. “This is a team and it’s a team in the true sense of the word. So are we appreciative of the contributions that all of our guys make, Marc included? Yes, absolutely. We wouldn’t be to the point where we’re at without these guys – any of them – so that’s how we look at it.
“I think we have loyalty to our whole team.”
They have ridden the roller-coaster these last few games, with Fleury mixing in two shutouts along with starts of five, four and four goals against. He was chased only 13 minutes into Game 3 by the Senators.
However, the Penguins are quick to note they’ve only scored three times in a series they trail 2-1 and threw a lot of support behind Fleury.
“Flower have bad game, not great game last night, but I think he’s ready to play tomorrow,” said Evgeni Malkin. “He’s (got) great confidence, we believe in him.”
“I’m sure there was more than one guy saying ‘Hey, you know what, it’s on us and we’ve got to be better in front of you,”’ said Crosby. “Just like everyone else, he’ll turn the page and we will as a group and make sure we’re better.”