LAS VEGAS – He has played like a comic-book super hero all season and on Wednesday Marc-Andre Fleury looked like one, too.
At the biggest moment in the Vegas Golden Knights’ amazing first season, the goaltender robbed the National Hockey League playoffs’ hottest man, Winnipeg Jets’ sniper Mark Scheifele, with a pair of amazing saves halfway through the third period as his team won 4-2 Wednesday to move within two victories of the Stanley Cup Final.
With Winnipeg pressing for a tying goal, Fleury stretched with his right leg to somehow get a toe on Scheifele’s one-timer from the slot. Then, after the puck squirted back to the Jets’ star for a second point-blank chance and a lot of net open, Fleury got airborne and dived across his goalmouth to block the second shot with his body.
They were the saves of the series, maybe the saves of the season as the Knights took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference Final.
“Unbelievable,” Vegas winger Alex Tuch said. “I mean, two saves.”
“His toe came out so fast, boom, one save and back to (Scheifele) again,” Knights’ veteran James Neal said. “Then he comes diving across again and makes another save. He’s been doing it all playoffs. He’s been doing it his whole life.”
Defenceman Luca Sbisa said: “It’s crazy. I just saw it on the replay on TV. Sometimes you’ve just got to shake your head because we don’t really know how he makes those saves.”
Nobody seems to have more fun playing hockey than Fleury, the 33-year-old who won three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins but is having the best season of his career after going to Las Vegas in the expansion draft.
He was actually able to joke about getting mocked by the Winnipeg crowd when the Jets won Game 1 4-2 on Saturday.
Fleury has stopped 63 of 66 shots since then. After his two saves on Scheifele, who scored both Winnipeg goals to give him 14 in 15 playoff games, Fleury literally hopped into the air with joy.
In the first period, during a mass scuffle around his net after a whistle, Fleury tickled Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler behind the ear.
“I did that?” Fleury said, clearly embarrassed, in the post-game press conference. “There’s cameras everywhere. I don’t know, I didn’t think. I was just sitting there and he was sitting there and people were fighting. I thought I’d have a little smile by myself.”
Of his game-saving stops against Scheifele, he said: “It just tried to reach and get a piece of it. It hit my toe and came right back in the middle of the slot, so that was not ideal. I knew he had a lot of time. I just tried to get as much body as I could in front of it. I got a piece.”
There are a lot of reasons this miraculous season is occurring for the Golden Knights, and luck is far down the list.
Some of it is difficult to explain, especially the bond formed between fans and team — and the empowerment of both – in the wake of the Oct. 1 mass murder of 58 concert-goers just down Las Vegas Boulevard from where the Knights play at T-Mobile Arena.
Among players, the biggest reason is Fleury. None of this happens without him. But he is merely a great player who has returned to form this season. There are a pile of Knights, donated by other teams, who are playing better than most people thought possible.
Consider that the team’s second forward line, which broke out of a mini-slump and drove the attack Wednesday with a pair of goals, consisted of Neal and Minnesota Wild castoffs Erik Haula and Tuch.
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant predicted after the morning skate that the trio would be better, more productive, in Game 3.
“We know,” Haula said. “He didn’t say it to us. We know as a group. Me and James are pretty honest with our game. We know when we’re not good enough. We talk about it. It was a big emphasis. We needed to be better. We need every line to be at their best this time of the year.”
Tuch continued to fill in for regular second-liner David Perron, who missed a second straight game with an undisclosed injury or illness.
His goal, on a setup from Neal at 8:13 of the middle period, was a body-slam to the Jets, who had just watched Neal make it 2-1 for Vegas at 5:40 after Haula intercepted Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s rim-around.
“It was good to get a couple, for sure,” Haula said. “We have a part to do as well and we haven’t gotten enough shots as a line, haven’t gotten to the net enough. That’s a big emphasis here for us. It’s good to get on the board and good to get a win as well. Good to get the confidence going for our line.”
It was the second time in two games the Gallant’s prediction came true. He promised after the series-opening loss that his players would be fully engaged and much better in Game 2, which they won 3-1 on Monday.
Maybe Gallant will be named psychic-of-the-year as well as coach-of-the-year. Both awards could be overshadowed by a Stanley Cup.