If you were to call a player the face of — not just his team — but the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs, chances are you’d land on somebody like the captain of the New York Islanders dynasty Denis Potvin, with his scar-obscuring beard, or maniacal St. Louis Blues centre Ryan O’Reilly, who wore a toothless grin from ear-to-ear when he skated off with the 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy.
Set those stereotypes aside, though, because the person who best represents what the playoffs are all about — perseverance against the headwind of unrelenting challenges — is no whiskered warrior. Even at 36 years old, Marc-Andre Fleury retains a mug as smooth as the flat side of a puck. And as the Vegas Golden Knights stopper prepares to start his 145th post-season contest on Friday — a winner-take-all affair versus the Minnesota Wild — he does so armed with the knowledge that no matter what his opponent or the game itself throws at him, there can’t be any curveballs left he hasn’t seen.
I look at Fleury, see the sincerity of a golden retriever who just wants to spread love within his family, and wonder how one easy-to-love goalie found himself in so many hockey situations that just required a hug.
Seriously, the Hockey Gods have been whizzing arrows at this guy’s flashy armour for decades now. It was almost 20 years ago that the 2004 World Junior Championship was settled by Fleury’s clearing attempt bouncing off teammate Braydon Coburn and into the Canadian net, handing Team USA its first-ever gold medal. One year earlier, Fleury was out of his mind at the WJC in advance of becoming the first-overall pick at the 2003 NHL Draft, but Canada lost a one-goal final to the Russians on home ice.
Two of his best NHL playoff seasons came in 2008 and 2017. In the former year, Fleury posted a .933 save percentage and 1.97 goals against average, but still experienced heartbreak when the Penguins lost to Detroit in the Cup Final. In the latter post-season, Fleury played 15 games — including a second-round, Game 7 shutout of the Washington Capitals — put up a .924 save percentage, yet still ceded the net to Matt Murray when the guy who had supplanted him as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 was ready to return in the Eastern Conference Final.
That was the same year Fleury waived his no-move clause so he could tearfully say good-bye to Steeltown and start anew in Vegas. Two years after taking the “Golden Misfits” to the 2018 Final in their first season of existence, Fleury was popped out of the crease in the bubble playoffs by 2020 trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner.
After enduring an off-season of hearing about how his $7-million cap hit made him untradeable, Fleury crumpled in the fetal position and begged for mercy. Just kidding. He used the opening created by Lehner’s recovery from shoulder surgery to turn in a Vezina-calibre season in which he finished third in both wins (26) and shutouts (six), while posting the sixth-best five-on-five save percentage (.929) and high-danger save percentage (.853) in the league among goalies with 1,000 minutes of action. In these playoffs, he’s allowed Minny two goals or fewer in four of six outings.
If you can believe it, the Sorel, Que., native has been absorbing blows and pushing forward dating all the way back to his home province’s famous pee wee tournament in Quebec City. Fleury’s Longueuil AA team won the event, but — after splitting time with his fellow adolescent batterymate — he didn’t get the tap for the final and experienced his team’s championship game from the bench.
It’s not as though every bad thing that’s happened to Fleury can be chalked up to fate’s sick sense of humour. From 2010 through 2017, his .903 playoff save percentage was the worst mark among the 14 puck stoppers who appeared in at least 35 contests during that timeframe. To his credit, though, Fleury righted the ship and from 2017 through these 2021 playoffs, his .923 mark is better than all but two goalies (Tuukka Rask and, ahem, Lehner are at .924) who’ve played at least 20 games in those five post-season sessions.
If you focus solely on “Flower’s” easygoing manner, you run the risk of underestimating how much fortitude he has. What makes Fleury like a weed you just can’t kill — and a guy teammates universally adore — is the competitive spirit and moxie simmering just below the sweet surface. When he was a major junior player for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Fleury was asked by coach Pascal Vincent to take a seat one night. Vincent also tasked Fleury with charting scoring chances for both his own team and the opponents. When Fleury turned in his homework assignment, all Vincent saw was a note that said, “I’m a goaltender, not a statistician.”
Vincent, now the coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, recalled the fallout in a story I wrote for The Hockey News when Fleury was beginning to establish himself in the NHL. “I was not too happy to see that, but on the other hand I could see he’s got a lot of character,” he said. “So, of course, he was brought into my office the office and we had a few words — well he listened to the few words I had to say — but when he left [the other coaches and I] looked at each other and I remember saying, ‘This kid is for real. He wants to play, maybe he made a mistake there, but he wants to play.”
That’s as true today as it was then. Fleury has never stopped fighting for the net, just as he’s never given up on a puck. His signature play from the 2009 Cup Final — diving headfirst to his blocker side to deny Nick Lidstrom’s attempt and preserve a one-goal lead in the final seconds of Game 7 — perfectly captures the spirit of Fleury.
Thank goodness he got that moment. Given everything that’s been thrown at him, Fleury probably deserves another just like it.