For all the moments of tumult that have temporarily taken hold during Marc-Andre Fleury‘s career, much of the veteran netminder’s NHL tenure has been a storybook tale.
The lanky, ever-smiling Sorel, Que. native arrived in Pittsburgh in 2003, went on to win three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, and eventually handed off the reins to his protégé before becoming the first ever starting netminder for the Golden Knights.
On Thursday evening, Fleury will face off against the Penguins as an opponent for the very first time, meeting his former teammates for a tilt at Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. Unsurprisingly, the 33-year-old said he has mixed feelings leading up to what should be an odd affair.
“It’s going to be weird for sure to see the jersey on the other side of it, my friends and guys I’ve played with for many years now,” Fleury told Gary Lawless of VegasGoldenKnights.com on Wednesday. “I think it will be a little different. I think on the ice, to play against so many guys I’ve played with and practiced with a lot. I know a bit of their tendencies. But they know, I know. So, I feel like it can be a little tricky.”
With the longtime Penguins starter and his former club set to meet, let’s take a look back at a few of Fleury’s finest moments as a member of the black and gold.
1. Fleury kicks off the Penguins’ historic rebuild
When you think of the current iteration of the Penguins and all they’ve accomplished over the past decade, all roads lead back to the NHL Draft. It was there that the team built their dominant core, benefitting from a string of top picks that filled their starting lineup with stars aplenty.
But it all started on June 21, 2003, two years before Sidney Crosby donned a Penguins sweater. The 2003 draft saw Pittsburgh officially kick off their rebuild by drafting Fleury first overall — passing on talent like eventual No. 2 pick Eric Staal to make Fleury only the third goaltender ever selected in the top spot.
“I think the draft was something I won’t forget, such a memorable day,” Fleury told Lawless. “The day that they told me I was making the team. I think my first game is probably my best memory. It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NHL and to finally do it was pretty amazing.”
One year later, the Penguins nabbed Evgeni Malkin with the second overall pick. Then Crosby at No. 1 in 2005, and Jordan Staal at No. 2 in 2006. Hockey in the league’s Eastern Conference hasn’t been the same since.
2. The Flower shuts down Alex Ovechkin in Game 7
The first championship of the Crosby era in Pittsburgh saw Fleury emerge as a bona fide superstar in the black and gold’s cage. There were plenty of standout performances during that exceptional run, but for the Penguins faithful, one stands out among the rest.
It was Game 7 of those 2009 playoffs, the final instalment of an electric series between Pittsburgh and the rival Washington Capitals. It was the true peak of the Crosby–Ovechkin rivalry, perhaps the lone stretch where the two truly showed both their respect and dislike for each other.
After trading victories through the first six games, most of which were nail-biting affairs, it all came down to one 60-minute stretch. Win and move on. Lose and it’s golfing season.
Just minutes in, Ovechkin broke free and closed in on the Penguins’ cage, nothing but open air ahead of him. In what was an absurdly emotional series, there’s no question an early breakaway tally from the Capitals sniper — in front of the home crowd, no less — would’ve changed the complexion of the entire contest.
Fleury wouldn’t have it. The veteran sprawled out and flashed the glove to keep things level, grinning with glee after making the clutch stop.
The Pens, of course, went on to win 6-2, eliminating Washington and eventually claiming the 2009 championship.
3. A star during games, a superstar during practice
For all he accomplished during NHL gameplay, Fleury’s ever-positive attitude off the ice and during practice might have been the most defining aspect of his identity as a Penguin.
That positivity came through during the goaltender’s practice antics more than anywhere else, as he was no stranger to some cheeky trash talk and some even cheekier shootout moves.
He wasn’t above throwing off teammates with some bold equipment choices as well.
Given the immense pressure and expectations the Penguins faced after winning their first championship, the netminder’s tendency to keep it light was key.
“Even in practice, he’s always that fun-loving guy that’s always making it energetic,” former teammate Chris Kunitz said of Fleury back in 2014. “It’s exciting times even when we’re doing shootouts at the end of the day. He’s doing pushups and spinning around and teasing us all to score on him and we still can’t.”
Fleury’s former captain, who surely shouldered the majority of that franchise pressure, agreed.
“I think anyone will tell you he’s just always got a smile on his face,” Crosby said at the time. “He’s always upbeat. Even in the toughest of times, I think he always finds something to laugh about, keeps things light. I think his energy is pretty contagious. He’s brought that since Day 1.”
4. Fleury hands the Cup to Matt Murray, signalling a changing of the guard
The end of The Flower’s time in Pittsburgh was undoubtedly bittersweet, as the club managed to dominate to the tune of back-to-back championships but did so with Murray as their primary starter.
That shifted Fleury to the bench, an odd sight after over a decade as the unequivocal top option in the Steel City. Of course, Fleury still played a key role in each of Pittsburgh’s two recent Cups. It was he who carried the club for the first half of 2015-16 before Mike Sullivan took over and turned the ship around. And it was Fleury who carried Pittsburgh through their first two series during last year’s Cup run, taking down two of the league’s best in Columbus and Washington before Murray healed up and took over.
Given that bittersweet ending, it was all the more meaningful when the veteran chose to hand the Cup to his young goaltender partner Murray, handing off the weight of the franchise’s cage in the process.
The significance of that moment wasn’t lost on Murray, who later told Hockey Night in Canada that Fleury passing him the Cup was one of the most special moments of his life.
5. The Save.
With 13 years’ worth of games, practices, successes and failures, there are a number of marquee moments that stand out for the longtime Penguins starter.
But there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: The Save.
Just a few rounds after he stoned Ovechkin’s Game 7 breakaway attempt, Fleury upped the ante with yet another game-changing Game 7 block. But this one was a whole different story — the stakes much higher and the circumstance far more trying.
The Penguins had managed to claw their way back to the Stanley Cup Final one year after their heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Improbably, they met Detroit yet again, and survived a white-knuckle Game 6 to stay alive and force a chance at redemption.
Through 59 minutes, Pittsburgh had earned the upper hand, pushing themselves out to a 2-1 lead after getting a pair of clutch tallies from Max Talbot. They were nearly there, nearly through the fire and onto the podium as Stanley Cup champions.
But with 6.5 seconds left, Detroit got one more chance.
A potentially game-changing offensive zone face-off tilted in favour of Detroit as Jordan Staal lost a draw to Henrik Zetterberg, allowing the Red Wings to cycle the puck back to the point and launch a shot on net.
Fleury made the save, only to see the puck float out to Detroit’s Hall of Fame captain Nicklas Lidstrom.
Two seconds, a seemingly open cage, the chance to send Game 7 to overtime, and the puck on the stick of one of the finest offensive defencemen to ever play the game. And then Fleury did this:
Cue the confetti.