While the elated Washington Capitals were celebrating their first Stanley Cup, Marc-Andre Fleury was standing at his dressing room stall, despondent and emotional about how his team came so close to winning but ultimately failed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t bring it home,” was Fleury’s message to the fans of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
It wasn’t one of those empty apologies some people make just for something to say. That he bore the brunt of the responsibility for the defeat speaks to how deeply it impacted him. Even though no apology was necessary, Fleury was truly devastated. In fact, after shaking hands with the Capitals, he smashed his blocker on the boards before leaving the ice. When you’re dealing with someone as even-keeled and likeable as Fleury, it’s sometimes easy to forget how ultra-competitive he is.
That has served him well through what is shaping up to be a Hall of Fame career. Three Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, then an unlikely romp through the season and playoffs for the expansion Golden Knights should do it. And through it all, Fleury has been in every situation, going from star goalie, then pushed to backup, then being called upon to save the Penguins before being relegated to backup again, then leading an expansion team to the best first season in the history of pro sports.
Technically, Michel Plasse was the first goalie taken No. 1 overall in the NHL draft, but that was in 1968 when the draft was used to assign players who had not signed with an NHL organization or were not playing for an NHL-sponsored junior team. In reality, Rick DiPietro was the first goalie taken first overall when he went to the New York Islanders in 2000, with Fleury becoming the next, and most recent, to go No. 1 when the Pens took him three years later. It was a string of years in which the Penguins were pathetic and would get the foundation for their dynasty by taking Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby with either the first or second overall pick in three successive drafts.
Crosby and Malkin have already paved their ways to the Hall of Fame, and Fleury will not be far behind. The goaltending backbone of the early years in Pittsburgh, Fleury grew with the Penguins and helped elevate them to respectability. And if not for one of the truly epic saves of all-time, a diving stop on Nicklas Lidstrom in the dying seconds of Game 7, perhaps the Penguins don’t win the Stanley Cup in 2009.
But Fleury’s contribution was so much more than that. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford anointed Fleury the best teammate in NHL history for how he comported himself with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017. And if not for his play in the first two rounds of the 2017 playoffs after Matt Murray was hurt in warm-ups before Game 1 of the first round, the Penguins wouldn’t have won back-to-back titles.
It was Fleury’s performance with the Vegas Golden Knights in Year 1 that cemented his status. Despite suffering a concussion during the season that caused him to miss 25 games, Fleury was stellar in net for the Golden Knights down the stretch and was a rock in the first three rounds of the playoffs. “A couple years ago I was getting told I was too old to play,” said Fleury after the Golden Knights’ 2018 playoff run. “I still love it, still have a lot of fun.”
Born: Nov. 28, 1984, Sorel, Que.
NHL Career: 2003-present
Teams: Pit, Veg
Stats: 404-229-72, 2.56 GAA, .913 SP, 48 SO
Stanley Cups: 3
DID YOU KNOW?
Prior to starring in the NHL, Fleury lost back-to-back gold-medal games in the World Junior Championship in agonizing fashion. At home in 2003, Canada was leading Russia 2-1 in the third period, but Fleury gave up two goals to lose 3-2. In Finland in 2004, Canada held a 3-1 lead over the U.S. in the third, but Fleury gave up three, including the winner when his clearing attempt went off teammate Braydon Coburn’s back.