Such are the extraordinary powers of Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that he didn’t even have to be on the ice to earn an assist.
A scoring review after his spectacular 33-save performance against the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday confirmed he deserved the second assist on the empty-net goal by Jonathan Marchessault that gave the Golden Knights the upper hand in the Western Conference final. Fleury was surprised to hear he had gotten the assist. His teammates aren’t surprised by any of his feats. “He does it all,” forward David Perron said.
Fleury, 33, did the Pittsburgh Penguins an enormous favor last season when he accepted their request that he waive his no-move clause so they wouldn’t have to protect him in the expansion draft that stocked Vegas’ roster and could keep younger, salary cap-friendly Matt Murray. The Golden Knights got instant credibility when they claimed Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. They also got a man who taps his goalposts and thanks them in his native French and in English when they stop pucks, a man who learned to use humor to defuse white-knuckle situations.
“I think that’s the key to making sure you don’t tense up at the wrong moment,” said Perron, who is expected to return Friday after missing two games because of an illness. “You make sure you keep playing your game, and that’s what he does. At the end of the day when he lost to Matt last year because he’s a younger goalie and the salary cap and all that stuff, he wants to prove himself. Every single day he’s out there he’s having fun.”
During the Golden Knights’ unexpected playoff journey, Fleury has joined fans in doing the wave and, on Wednesday, he slyly tickled the ear of Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler when players began pushing and shoving in front of his goal crease. “I’d be having fun too if I was up 2-1 in the series,” Winnipeg forward Adam Lowry said as the teams prepared for Game 4 on Friday at T-Mobile Arena.
The Golden Knights hold that lead because Fleury has backed up his humor with seriously clutch efforts and is 10-3 with a 1.70 goals-against average, .945 save percentage, and a playoff-leading four shutouts. Among his most impressive work were a toe save and a scrambling body block in quick succession against Winnipeg forward Mark Scheifele in the third period Wednesday while protecting a one-goal lead. Asked where he ranked those stops among all the timely saves he has made during his career, he grinned in embarrassment.
“I don’t remember all my saves,” he said.
But his teammates will remember those two saves for a while. “I was on the bench. I was freaking out. I couldn’t believe they didn’t score, honestly,” said forward Alex Tuch, who scored Vegas’ third goal, at 8:13 of the second period, on a pass from James Neal. “It was an unbelievable couple of saves there. He kept us in the game the entire time. He was the key to our success.”
Fleury wasn’t always so jovial on the ice. Experience taught him to be true to his nature in order to unlock his mind and his muscles. “You go through stuff and you learn from the tough ones. You learn from the good too,” he said, crediting his goaltending coaches for helping him with those lessons.
“I just had to find ways to stay relaxed and play relaxed and the breathing, the thinking, you know? And enjoy myself. I feel like some years maybe I was putting a lot of pressure to win. In Pittsburgh you’re supposed to win every time, right? And then sometimes maybe you get lost in it a bit too much. I think it’s just about realizing what you’re doing and have some fun with it.”
Fleury skipped Thursday’s optional skate, leaving third-string goalie Maxime Lagace to mind the net while backup Malcolm Subban deals with an undisclosed injury. But Fleury put his time to good use by playing bubble hockey with Carson and Jackson Haugan, whom he had welcomed into the locker room Wednesday. The boys are sons of Darcy Haugan, who was the coach and general manager of the Humboldt Broncos junior team and one of 16 people killed when the team’s bus crashed in April.
Fleury enjoyed the game as much as the kids did. “It’s cool to see everything that Flower does for his teammates and everybody,” Perron said. “And the type of quality that he brings on the ice [Wednesday] night too, that’s exceptional.”
The Jets believe they can get the better of Fleury if they manufacture the same intense pressure they mounted in the third period Wednesday. “I think if we get the same chances we did, some of those are going to go in,” Paul Stastny said. “If not, he’ll be standing on his head and you’ve got to tip your hat.”
Bad news for the Jets: Before a playoff game last spring Fleury was caught on video doing a cartwheel in full goaltending gear outside the Penguins’ locker room. With a smile, of course. Standing on his head isn’t beyond his reach.