Marc-Andre Fleury shines as Las Vegas sends Penguins to 3rd straight loss
LAS VEGAS – Marc-Andre Fleury didn't get any particular satisfaction making his old friends miserable Thursday night.
He's a competitor, not a sadist. He's motivated by winning, not inflicting pain on opponents.
But make no mistake. That's exactly what he did.
Fleury had a glorious night, thriving on the emotion of facing the team he played for throughout the first 13 years of his career and making 24 saves to lead the Vegas Golden Knights to a 2-1 victory over the Penguins.
"I tried to remind myself it was just another game, just two points I needed, but once you get out there and you see all these guys, you want to do well," Fleury said. "A little pride. The next time I see them, I don't want them to be talking about their goals. I want to tell them I saved them."
If the loss wasn't rock bottom for the Penguins' season so far, they can see it from here. They've lost four of their last five, they're out of a playoff position, and on Wednesday, general manager Jim Rutherford said they have to start picking it up or he's going to make significant changes to the roster.
"It's obviously not ideal," said defenseman Ian Cole, who scored the Penguins' goal. "We expect to win every game we play. That's what's important to this team. Losing any game, especially multiple games in a short stretch, should certainly open some eyes and make guys realize that whatever they're doing isn't enough."
For Fleury – and the Penguins fans who adored him during his tenure with the team – the night was full of memorable moments.
In warm-ups, he and goalie Matt Murray, who remained friendly during often adverse conditions for a goaltending tandem over the past two seasons, met at center ice for a hug.
"He was a big mentor for me when we were playing together," Murray said. "I just wanted to let him know that I miss him, I guess."
The sell-out crowd at the T-Mobile Arena was fairly evenly split between Penguins and Golden Knights fans. The one thing they could agree on was an admiration for Fleury. He received a hearty ovation when starting lineups were announced.
In the opening moments of the game, Phil Kessel had two above-average scoring chances skating up the right wing. Those moments got Fleury thinking.
"He loves blocker, but he knows that I know," Fleury said. "That's what screws me up. I don't know if he's going to switch it up."
He didn't switch it up, and Fleury made both stops.
In the first period, former Penguins winger James Neal and Cole traded goals. With the score tied late in the second, Fleury made his most memorable save.
Brian Dumoulin took a pass from Dominik Simon near the left faceoff dot and fired a shot that looked destined for the top corner of the net. Fleury, in a near replica of the save he made on Nicklas Lidstrom to give the Penguins the 2009 Stanley Cup championship, jumped to his right to knock the puck down with his chest.
"I haven't done it too much since," Fleury said. "Quick memory popped up. That was good."
Finally, in the third period with the game still tied, Fleury and Sidney Crosby, close friends who have sparred in practice daily for more than a decade, had a run-in. Crosby wheeled around the net and fired a shot past Fleury's right shoulder. It clanged off the crossbar.
"I didn't think he had much there and he still got it up and got the post," Fleury said with a smile. "(The crossbar gets) a little thank you."
While the play was a lighthearted moment for Fleury, it was a much more crushing blow for Crosby.
"I thought it (was in), but that's the way it's going right now," Crosby said. "Maybe it's a different game if that goes in. In a tight game like that, you need those chances."
Vegas scored the game-winning goal about eight minutes into the third. After a Dumoulin turnover in the neutral zone during a line change, defenseman Jon Merrill took a drop pass from Erik Haula, used the Penguins defenseman as a screen, and ripped a shot past Murray.
"I felt pretty mediocre, I think," Murray said after returning to the lineup from a Nov. 27 lower-body injury. "That second one, that's a back-breaker. I want that one back for sure."
He won't get it back, of course. It was the goal that sent Fleury to a satisfying win and the Penguins to a demoralizing loss.
"We have to find a way to win a game," Crosby said. "When it's going like this, it seems like you're finding ways to lose instead of win."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.