Kevin Gorman: Five thoughts on Fleury's return
1. Oh, what a night: Never have I been to a sporting event where Pittsburghers had such an emotional attachment to an opposing player as Penguins fans do with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
It was a love-hate relationship at times, with many pointing the finger directly at Fleury for the Penguins' post-Cup failures, but the way he overcame the challenges made Fleury a fan favorite.
What made his departure different from other Pittsburgh sports heroes is that Fleury didn't want to leave. He didn't demand a trade, didn't chase more money in free agency and didn't show his displeasure with his demotion by becoming a distraction.
Instead, Fleury grudgingly accepted that circumstances had changed and focused on being a good teammate who played a major part in helping the Penguins win a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship.
In today's sports world, that made him unique.
And Pittsburgh is right to show its appreciation.
2. Terrific tribute: The Penguins showed their appreciation with a three-minute tribute video to Fleury on the scoreboard at 13:03 of the first period at PPG Paints Arena, capturing the best moments of the 2003 No. 1 overall pick's 14 years with the Penguins.
Three-time Stanley Cup Champion.Two-time Penguins MVP.One incredible goaltender and human being.Thank you for everything, Flower. pic.twitter.com/sXSFwmmUeP
Three-time Stanley Cup Champion.Two-time Penguins MVP.One incredible goaltender and human being.Thank you for everything, Flower. pic.twitter.com/sXSFwmmUeP— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 7, 2018
"It was a great tribute by the Penguins," said Vegas winger James Neal, another former Penguin. "You saw what he meant to this city with the way the fans reacted to him. It was pretty special. I don't know how many players can go back to a team like that and they're chanting your name in warm-ups. It's pretty amazing.
"I saw first-hand what he did here in Pittsburgh, how good of a person and teammate he is. So it was a special tribute, and he did a good job of keeping it together, too.
"I'm sure he was a little bit nervous but he did a great job. That's tough to do, to come into your old building, especially for how long he's played here and what he's done here, especially being a goalie. I don't know how he does it."
Fleury handled it better than expected, stopping all 11 shots he faced in the first period before a scoring barrage in the second and early third gave the Penguins a 5-4 victory.
Fleury was shown on the scoreboard taking some deep breaths, trying to control his emotions. That had to be a battle for a player with an ever-present smile who talked about his affection for this city and its fans, where he grew up and started a family.
"I was happy I had a mask on," Fleury said.
Someone asked Fleury if he was wiping tears from his eyes. When he hesitated to answer, it was suggested that maybe it was sweat.
That drew a laugh from Fleury, to keep from crying.
3. Fan perspective: Contrary to popular belief, Trib Total Media still publishes two print editions (Tribune-Review in Westmoreland County and Valley News Dispatch in the Alle-Kiski Valley), so an early deadline forced me to focus on Fleury's fans .
It was interesting to see how many fans wore their No. 29 sweaters, some from his Penguins years and others who purchased Vegas Golden Knights jerseys in support of their favorite player.
I talked to four fans who received tickets to the game and Vegas jerseys as a Christmas present (although one opted to wear his autographed Fleury Penguins jersey instead), and they found that Penguins fans were more friendly than usual.
"They gave you a look," Penguins fan Wynne Mitcheson said, "until they see the number."
4. Vintage Fleury: No. 29 reminded everyone why he had a love affair with Pittsburgh hockey fans with his play in net.
Fifteen seconds in, Sidney Crosby almost slipped a redirect past Fleury. One minute in, after Olli Maatta fired a wrist shot from the right circle and Tom Kuhnhackl and Carl Hagelin crashed the net, Fleury went full split to stop the rebound.
Of course, Fleury also had a turnover behind the net. But he stopped a Crosby shot from the goal line, made a pad save on Jake Guentzel's backhand and a poke-check to stop Evgeni Malkin on a breakaway. After Phil Kessel hit the crossbar and then the post, Fleury playfully rubbed both in thanks.
For Fleury, it was all so weird to play against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. What he really wanted was a better outcome. Fleury was clearly frustrated about giving up five goals in a loss.
"Everything was so different, to be in this (visiting) locker room and going onto the ice in another jersey and seeing them coming at me instead of going away from me was very different," Fleury said. "Now I get to see what the other goalies face all these years. These guys, it's good to play against them but they're very talented, very fast and they are able to create a lot of space and time for themselves to get some goals. …
"Hopefully, it will get easier to play them as it goes on."
5. Stand and deliver: On a night that belonged to Fleury, the most unexpected event came when Ryan Shazier was shown on the video scoreboard at 3:59 of the first period.
To the surprise and delight of everyone in the building, the Steelers inside linebacker stood up – with only slight assistance – and received his own standing ovation.
Upon release from the UPMC Rehabilitation Center last Thursday, Shazier had posted photos on Instagram of himself standing next to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and others.
On Sunday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Shazier had regained movement in his legs and was "engaging in a regular walking routine." That report was later clarified by NBC's Michelle Tafoya, who said Shazier was walking only with the assistance of a walker or support from others.
So, to see Shazier stand up was inspiring.
On a night that belonged to Fleury and his fans, the sight of Shazier standing was the most feel-good moment of all.
Terrific story playing out in Pittsburgh with the return of Marc-Andre Fleuryto face all his old pals with @penguins with his first-place @GoldenKnights . Great outpouring of emotion. Two very good hockey teams. Too bad it's not worthy of a national broadcast spot in the U.S.
Terrific story playing out in Pittsburgh with the return of Marc-Andre Fleuryto face all his old pals with @penguins with his first-place @GoldenKnights . Great outpouring of emotion. Two very good hockey teams. Too bad it's not worthy of a national broadcast spot in the U.S.— Scott Burnside (@OvertimeScottB) February 6, 2018
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.