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Golden Knights ‘backbone’ Fleury picking perfect time for career-best campaign

Marc-Andre Fleury may not be accepting the Vezina Trophy in Vegas come season's end, but with the way the Golden Knights goaltender is playing, he could have his sights set on a much more coveted piece of hardware.

To say there were any Vezina Trophy snubs this season wouldn’t be quite accurate. The finalists had all earned their rightful place in the running for the award. The Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne cobbled together a brilliant campaign and looks to be the frontrunner to win the award for the first time in his career, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy was a sturdy last line of defense on the East’s top team and, given the way his sophomore campaign shook out, Connor Hellebuyck was a revelation for the Western Conference finalist Winnipeg Jets.

That said, if we were to seek a single snub, one netminder whose candidacy for the Vezina was arguably as strong as those of his counterparts, Marc-Andre Fleury would fit the bill.

Statistically, Fleury had a case, to be sure. Among goaltenders to play at least half the campaign, Fleury boasted the second-best save percentage at .927. His 2.24 goals-against average was tied for tops in the league. He pitched four shutouts, which put him inside the top 10. He did all of this while providing stability in the crease for an expansion team that shocked the league. Maybe the only knock, of course, was his time spent between the pipes: he skated in 46 games after suffering a concussion four games into the season.

Fleury’s was somewhat surprising, too, given he didn’t have a track record that would have suggested he could post league-best numbers, particularly not as he entered his mid-30s. Only twice has he finished inside the top 10 in Vezina voting prior to this season — chances are he’ll be top-five this time around — and he had a career average .912 SP and 2.58 GAA. Good, surely, but not necessarily the kind of standout statistics that would lead one to believe he was going to take his game to this level this season. So, what has propelled him into his current standing as one of the league’s toughest netminders? “You try different things, (and there’s) maybe one technical thing that’s changed,” Fleury said. “But for the most part it was just about being ready, the mental aspect of it.”

Never has Fleury’s seemingly single-season evolution into one of the truly elite goaltenders been more evident than the post-season, either. He has been the driving force behind the Golden Knights’ success, as much or more as any other player. “He’s maybe got something a little bit more to prove this year,” Vegas winger James Neal said. “After the last couple years, he’s such a great goalie so maybe it’s tough not playing and being that No. 1 guy, so to come here, he’s taken our team and you’ve seen what he’s done. He’s there every single night making big saves.”

Prove himself he has, too. Already, Fleury has pitched four shutouts — two in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings and a pair in the second round against the San Jose Sharks — including clean sheets in not one, but both of the Golden Knights’ series-clinching victories. And Fleury’s current playoff penchant for blanking the opposition has him in position to accomplish something rare. Even with this being an era of goaltending excellence in which the league’s post-lockout SP average has jumped from .901 to as high as .915, Fleury is putting together a post-season that’s flirting with a mark that hasn’t been seen matched since the early days of the expansion era.

During the 1968-69 playoffs, the St. Louis Blues were led to the Stanley Cup final by Hall of Fame keeper Jacques Plante, then at the tail-end of his career as a 40-year-old keeper. During that post-season, Plante appeared in 10 outings and put up an eye-popping .950 SP. And since those playoffs, no goaltender has been able to maintain a better SP across an entire post-season. Some have come close, definitely. For instance, Jonathan Quick backstopped the Kings to the 2012 Cup with a .946 mark, Tuukka Rask got the Bruins to the 2013 final with a .940 SP. But Fleury’s .951 SP through 10 games has him looking as sharp as either netminder did in the early part of their respective runs. 

“For us, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have him,” Neal said. “Every night, he’s making huge saves for us at the right times and for a guy whose had a great career and won so many Stanley Cups, he’s still got something to prove and wants to be better each day. Guys see that, especially younger guys, and it builds a lot of character in our room.”

It also gives the opposition something to think about. Heading into the Western Conference final, Winnipeg is well aware that Fleury has been on the brink of unbeatable throughout these playoffs. “This time of year, a hot goaltender can carry a team a long way,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “He’s on top of his game, so we know it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to find some ways to make it challenging for him.”

Making anything challenging for Fleury right now seems like a Herculean task, though. On low-danger shots, Fleury has a post-season best .989 SP at 5-on-5. He also ranks third in mid-danger SP, only narrowly behind his conference final competition, Hellebuyck, for second spot. And when it comes to high-danger shots, Fleury has been brilliant all post-season long. He’s stopping nearly 94 percent of all 5-on-5 shots from prime scoring areas this post-season, far and away the best mark of any netminder. It’s no wonder, then, Vegas is four wins shy of heading to the Stanley Cup final, and the Golden Knights are ready to live and die on Fleury’s play, as they have all post-season.

“He’s a really proud, competitive player,” Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon said. “He’s like a lot of players, probably all players on our team, in that he wants to respond with his best season. That’s what he’s doing.”

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