Kevin Gorman: Golden night for Marc-Andre Fleury, his fans
Penguins fans came to PPG Paints Arena with divided loyalties Tuesday night, proudly wearing the number of an opposing player.
They gave goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who spent 13 seasons with the Penguins and won three Stanley Cup championships, a warm welcome in his first return to Pittsburgh.
Fans wore No. 29 on their sweaters, for the Penguins or Vegas Golden Knights.
One man even wore both.
Penguins season-ticket holder Mike Holthom is such a big Fleury fan that he had a special sweater made for this game. A seamstress from his hometown of Columbiana, Ohio, stitched the right side of a Penguins jersey to the Golden Knights' left side.
“I have the other half, actually,” Holthom said, “but it isn't as cool because it's the butt-side of the Penguin.”
It was proof that this night belonged not only to Fleury but Penguins fans who grew attached to his ever-present smile, gift for gags and spectacular saves.
The standing-room-only crowd chanted his name before the puck dropped, the familiar sing-song of “Fleury! Fleury! Fleury!”
At the first stoppage in play at 13 minutes, 3 seconds of the first period, the Penguins played a video tribute to Fleury. He looked up and watched from the ice below, standing behind the net and leaning on his stick.
It brought Fleury to tears — and he wasn't alone.
There was sentiment after the Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup that the NHL should schedule Vegas to open the season at PPG Paints Arena, so Fleury could be on the ice for the raising of the championship banner.
But this was even better, as Fleury neither stole the spotlight from that night nor was overshadowed by it.
Instead, Fleury received his Stanley Cup championship ring in a private ceremony with owner Mario Lemieux, president David Morehouse, general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan.
The goosebumps came when the game stopped and The Struts' “One Night Only” blared over the loudspeakers for a three-minute highlight.
It captured some of his most memorable moments with the Penguins, from his split saves to waving the Terrible Towel at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field to the Cup parades.
The loudest roars were for Fleury's glove save on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal and his block of Nicklas Lidstrom's last-second shot to clinch the Cup.
When it was over, Fleury raised his stick to the crowd and clapped it with his glove.
Fleury took a deep breath to keep his composure, but couldn't help but wipe tears from his eyes afterward.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Mike Kubisiak, 29, of North Baldwin. “I almost teared up, I'm not gonna lie.”
Kubisiak and his fiance, Wynne Mitcheson, both sported No. 29s, but he opted for his autographed Penguins Fleury jersey that was a gift for being man of honor at his sister's wedding while she wore the Golden Knights' steel gray sweater that was a Christmas present (along with tickets) from her future mother-in-law.
“Penguins fans give you a look,” said Mitcheson, “until they see the number.”
Ben and Laura Pritz of Oakland wore the Golden Knights' gray steel sweaters with Fleury's No. 29 as they posed for a photo near the Mario Lemieux statue outside the Trib Total Media gate.
“He's always been a great ambassador for the city,” said Ben Pritz, who also was wearing a Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup championship baseball cap. “Despite not being a Pittsburgher, he took to the city, and Pittsburghers took to him. It's hard not to support him.”
Added Laura: “He's a Penguin at heart. We're welcoming him home.”
Despite their conflicting rooting interests, they still wanted the Penguins to win — which they did, 5-4.
“I think a 1-0 Pens victory on an absolute snipe from Crosby that perhaps no goaltender could come up with would be the perfect scenario.”
But Fleury was upstaged, first when Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had spinal stabilization surgery only two months ago, stood up when shown on the video scoreboard and received a standing ovation.
After Fleury delivered a handful of highlight stops and got a couple assists when Phil Kessel hit the crossbar and the right post — which Fleury playfully rubbed in appreciation — the Penguins scored three second-period goals and two early in the third.
It was as if Fleury's 13 seasons with the Penguins played out in one game, the good, bad and ugly all rolled into one.
It was, fittingly, a golden night for the fans of Fleury, forever a Penguin even if he's now a Golden Knight.