Like it or not, Fleury back in spotlight with Golden Knights

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WINNIPEG – The best goalie by far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring wasn’t even the best goalie on his team last season, which is how Marc-Andre Fleury ended up with the Vegas Golden Knights.

After losing his starting job to Matt Murray in 2016 during the first of two straight Stanley Cup runs by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury’s exit from the only National Hockey League team he had known took more than a year to orchestrate. The goaltender’s four-year, $23-million contract and no-movement clause made Fleury a cumbersome asset to trade.

He could have gone to the Calgary Flames or Toronto Maple Leafs or even the Winnipeg Jets, whose inability to get very far two years ago in trade discussions left the Winnipeg crease open for a fifth-round draft pick named Connor Hellebuyck to seize.

After a playoff curtain call for the Penguins last spring, when an injury to Murray gave Fleury the chance to lead Pittsburgh to the conference final before he was again replaced, the 33-year-old from Sorel, Que., finally waived his no-movement clause last June so he could go to Vegas in the expansion draft.

Great weather. Nice play to live. Anonymity in a non-hockey market. No pressure to win. Who knew?

"I’m not looking for the spotlight; I’m not that kind of guy," Fleury said Friday, the day before facing Hellebuyck and the Jets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. "All I wanted was to keep playing and I wanted my team to do well. That’s all I care about.

"There was lots of unknown going to this team — the talent, the organization, the players, seeing how we would do. Everything has turned out for the best with how much support we get from the fans, how much we’re winning, the consistency that the guys play with. I’m proud of where we are and happy I get a chance to be part of it."

And like it or not, Fleury is back in the spotlight.

If there was a Conn Smythe Trophy for the first half of the playoffs, Fleury would have won it.

In four- and six-game series wins against the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, Fleury has stopped 327 of 344 shots for a save percentage of .951. His goals-against average of 1.53 also leads the playoffs.

That level of performance is unsustainable over a long period. But the last month hasn’t been a fluke for either Fleury or the record-smashing Knights, who won 51 games as an expansion team and are 8-2 in the playoffs.

Fleury’s playoff run is merely an elevated extension of a regular season that saw the veteran post career-best numbers: .927 save rate and 2.24 average.

Had he not missed 25 games early in the season due to a concussion, Fleury might be a Vezina Trophy finalist along with Hellebuyck, who has followed his 44-win regular campaign by going 8-4 in the playoffs with a .927 save percentage and 2.25 GAA.

No active goalie has more playoff wins than Fleury, whose 70 victories are 10th all-time, one win behind Jacques Plante. Fleury has won three Stanley Cups, the first in 2009 as the Penguins’ undisputed starter.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Everything is new to Hellebuyck, 24. Fleury has been here, done that before.

"He kind of got that little swagger back, that starting role," Vegas teammate James Neal, who played with Fleury in Pittsburgh, said Friday after the Knights’ arrival in Winnipeg. "It’s his team. He didn’t want to disappoint and he’s been our backbone. He has kind of taken his game to the next level, even if you weren’t sure there was another level for him. He’s been so good.

"Right from Day 1, I knew we would be fine, knew we’d be a competitive team because we had Flower in our net. You can have a team that maybe doesn’t score the most goals or doesn’t defend the best when you have a great goalie (because) he gives you the chance to stay in games. Then we put our team together and we actually had some scoring and we had great defence. Then you add a great goaltender, and things really started to come together.

"He had something to prove. He wanted to show everyone how good he was."

By definition — as players deemed expendable by other teams — every Golden Knight wanted to show how good he was, how somebody else made a mistake.

"I wasn’t thinking about proving anything," Fleury insisted. "I was just trying to do my best and help the team any way I could. I didn’t overthink things; I just went out and played.

"It’s all about winning at the end. That’s all that matters. It is more fun when you’re in the net and you get to live the ups and downs, and the intensity and the crowd. It’s what I love to do."

And what he’s getting a chance to do again.

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