WASHINGTON, D.C. – There was a moment from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Game 1 victory in Washington Thursday that told you all you need to know about Marc-Andre Fleury’s standing in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the scene you’re thinking of. (We’ll get to that one later.)
Striving to tie the game in the third period, Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen swiped at a loose puck as Fleury was smothering it with his glove.
Viewing it as a slash on their goaltender (watch below and decide for yourself), five angry Penguins converged on Niskanen from every whichaway. He was a cube of raw beef plopped in a piranha tank.
The sign was posted in block letters: DO NOT SNIFF THE FLOWER.
Ask Jim Rutherford. Sometimes the greatest hockey trade is the one you don’t make.
All but certain to lose 32-year-old Fleury after these playoffs to the Vegas Golden Knights or somewhere else via trade, the Penguins general manager could have dealt his two-time-champion goaltender around the 2016 draft and again at the 2017 trade deadline.
Calgary reportedly came calling, on at least two occasions. Dallas would’ve been foolish not to inquire. There were probably others.
“There’s always rumours,” captain Sidney Crosby said Friday, asked how his team felt when Fleury remained on March 2. “There’s always a big relief when everyone’s together and you can move past that once the deadline’s over.”
Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan’s loyalties tilted sharply toward Matt Murray this season. Understandably so. Murray is a full decade younger, $2 million cheaper, under contract for a year longer, and he’d just backstopped Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup when Fleury went down to injury. Further, the organization is already high on Murray’s successor, 21-year-old Tristan Jarry.
“The key thing in this situation is, how long can Fleury go and be patient? He’s a guy who’s used to playing,” Rutherford said in late February.
“He’s handled it well up to this point. But he’s told me — we talk periodically — he wants to play.”
Fleury took a seat on the bench. He never complained. He cheered on Murray, pitched in on back-to-backs, loosened the forwards’ Gatorade bottles with prankish glee and further endeared himself to his teammates.
“He’s just a quality person,” Sullivan said.
“Marc deserves so much credit for his professionalism and his selfless approach. He’s a true teammate and he puts the team in front of himself in a lot of ways, and so we couldn’t be happier for how well he’s playing for us right now and the difference he’s made in helping us win games.”
Fate plays pranks, too. Murray was all set to begin the Penguins’ title defence when he injured his “lower body” warming up for Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s opening round versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Unleash the Fleury.
The NHL’s most overqualified backup has slid in for the rookie as seamlessly as Murray did for him when their roles were flipped one springtime ago.
Bolting the doors Thursday for a 3-2 win in D.C., Fleury is now 5-1 in this post-season with a .934 save percentage. He outdueled Vezina finalist Sergei Bobrovsky in Round 1, and has a leg up on Vezina finalist Braden Holtby early in Round 2.
“It didn’t really feel like [he was a backup] with how he handled it,” Crosby explained.
“Certainly for him, I’m sure there was a little adjustment. He’s handled it great and he looks comfortable in there.”
Comfort with uncertainty outside the boards and chaos within them. Like when the Caps pressed hard in the final minutes of Game 1, and Fleury lost his stick and flopped around like a carp and still kept the puck out and was left heaving for breath.
“When are they gonna blow the whistle?” wondered Sullivan.
Matt Cullen got a kick out of watching the sequence.
“He is so athletic,” Cullen said. “I don’t know if I played with a quicker goalie. He is so good at finding pucks and reacting so quickly. He covered a lot of ground in a short period of time.”
Fleury describes the flurry.
“I couldn’t see the puck for a little while there, I had no stick, so I was trying to make some stops. It was fun,” he says.
“Just competing, you know? Try to rise up to the challenge and try to keep the game in the game. Saving that lead, when you can do it, it’s a good feeling.”
Fleury is bailing out the Penguins, but the reverse is also true. Pittsburgh blocked shots with abandon and boxed out at the Verzion Center like they were Wizards. Caps star Nicklas Backstrom noted how often they collapsed to defend the house.
The Penguins are preaching how they cannot allow so many quality chances on Fleury in Game 2. While the Capitals took an optional day Friday, Sullivan’s players were grinded through a full hour of practice, with an emphasis on speedy breakouts to relieve pressure. They know he helped steal them one.
“We’re one of the few teams in the league that probably has two No. 1 goalies, and we’ve relied on both of them all year long to help us win games and put this team in the position that it’s in today,” Sullivan said.
“I expect more of the same.”