Marc-Andre Fleury's bittersweet return to Pittsburgh, where fans will forever love him
Marc-Andre Fleury makes his long-awaited return to Pittsburgh — though Tuesday night's game will be bittersweet for many fans as the Flower dons a Las Vegas Golden Knights sweater and occupies space on the visitors' side of the ice.
The Penguins are expected to honor Fleury with a video tribute. The organization surely will look to top this one it shared after Las Vegas selected him first in June's expansion draft:
Please share below your thoughts and memories of No. 29 in Pittsburgh.
Here are a few fond recollections to get the conversation started:
The love affair never would have started if the Penguins hadn't traded up in the 2003 draft to take Fleury No. 1 overall.
The moment happened inside Nashville's Bridgestone Arena — a place that would come to bookend Fleury's career with the Penguins.
"What a blessing," Fleury wrote about being drafted in a letter to Pittsburgh fans published in June by The Players' Tribune. "I would, maybe, get to play with Mario Lemieux. I would, hopefully, get to play for the team that had won back-to-back Stanley Cups in '91-92. I would have a shot at playing in the NHL.
"The next 14 years were beyond my wildest dreams."
From Jonathan Bombulie, Penguins beat writer for the Trib:
Due to the NHL lockout, a 20-year-old Fleury spent the 2004-05 season in the AHL.
Before Game 2 of a first-round playoff series with the Binghamton Senators, there was some question about whether Fleury or Andy Chiodo would get the start in net.
In hockey, it's customary for the starting goaltender to lead his team onto the ice for pregame warm-ups. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Michel Therrien didn't want to give his opponents even a half-hour to ponder which goalie they would be facing, so he gave some unusual instructions to Fleury and Chiodo.
At the start of warm-ups, he had Fleury and Chiodo stand face-to-face in the bench door and shuffle sideways onto the ice, stepping foot onto the playing surface at exactly the same time to avoid giving any hints.
The story actually reveals more about Therrien's mindset than anything about Fleury, but it's one of my first memories of the now-beloved netminder in a black-and-gold jersey.
Three minutes into Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal at Verizon Center, Fleury robbed Alexander Ovechkin of a seemingly sure-fire breakaway goal. The phenomenal save set the tone in what unfolded as a 6-2 Penguins' thrashing of the Capitals.
Then for good measure, he got Ovechkin again in the 2017 playoffs to shut out the Capitals and end their season.
His comments following the game:
From Trib columnist Kevin Gorman:
My favorite memories of Fleury came during the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, a year before he would make his most-famous saves.
Fleury led the Penguins onto the ice before Game 1 at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, falling flat onto his face. It was an embarrassing moment for the then-23-year-old goaltender, only five years removed from being the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft, but he was able to laugh it off.
And that ever-present smile became his trademark.
The Red Wings won Game 1, 4-0, and Game 2, 3-0, but the young Penguins were able to overcome Fleury's flop and rally for a Game 3 victory at Civic Arena. When they returned to The Joe, Fleury had a fantastic moment — before the game even started.
A Detroit tradition involves throwing an octopus on the ice — the tentacles representing the eight wins the Original Six teams needed to clinch a Stanley Cup championship — and Zamboni driver Al Sobotka would pick it up and twirl it to the cheers of Red Wings fans.
Fleury had a little fun at Sobotka's expense by squirting a water bottle over his shoulder. It was a sign of Fleury's playful side — he's a notorious prankster — but also symbolic of his playful nature and how cool he was under pressure with the Penguins trailing the series, 3-1, and facing elimination at an arena in which they had suffered two shutouts.
Fleury was fantastic in stopping 55 shots, but the Red Wings had a one-goal lead in the final minute.
Detroit fans were chanting, "We want the Cup!" when Max Talbot pressed the mute button by tallying the tying goal with 34.3 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. The Penguins went on to win Game 5, 4-3, in triple overtime.
Winning '09 Cup
In the waning seconds of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit, Fleury dove to his right and blocked a Nicklas Lidstrom shot with his chest — helping the Penguins win the Cup and avenge losing to the Red Wings a season earlier.
More from Gorman:
Fleury went from infamous flop to making the most famous stops of his career, a pair of Game 7 gems: His glove save on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway sparked the Penguins past the Capitals in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal (see above) and his sliding block of a Nicklas Lidstrom last-second shot clinched the Cup championship, the third in franchise history and the first of his three with the Penguins.
The Flower was finally in full bloom.
Trib columnist Tim Benz said his favorite Fleury memories tend to be locker room interviews, especially early in his career.
"Fleury's English vocabulary wasn't exactly 'expansive' at the time. He knew a few dozen words, and an inordinate percentage of them were words I can't type here," Benz wrote in an email. "And Fleury would often swear accidentally, realize it, and out of sheer goalie instinct try to cover up the interviewer's microphone like he could stop the curse word from getting on the tape as if he was saving a puck from going in the net."
An exchange between Benz and Fleury after a late goal cost him a shutout:
Benz: "You still mad about that goal?"
Fleury: "Oh yeah! As soon as it went in I was like, '(bleep)'! Oops. Sorry. (Second bleep). I can't say (first bleep), can I?"
Benz: "No, you can't. And you can't say (second bleep) either."
Fleury: "Oh, good. Sorry. Shoot."
***Covers microphone again***
Benz: "No, that one you can say."
After hardly playing in the playoffs during the 2016 Stanley Cup run, the Penguins leaned on Fleury heavily in 2017 to get through the Eastern Conference gauntlet. First Columbus, then Washington and finally Ottawa — for three games at least.
He once again relinquished net duties to Matt Murray, and the Penguins once again hoisted the Cup after beating the Nashville Predators.
Fleury took a quick turn with the prized trophy and skated for the final time in his Penguins gear in the same arena where the organization drafted him 14 years earlier.
"Kind of ironic right now," Fleury wrote in his open letter to fans. "... I wish I could have been in net for my last game as a Penguin. But we raised the Cup, again, and it made all the sacrifices worthy."
More from Bombulie:
It's fitting, in a sense, because one of my last memories of Fleury in a Penguins uniform also involved his interaction with another goaltender.
On a Nashville night last June, the Penguins were passing around the Stanley Cup after winning back-to-back championships. When Fleury's turn with the fabled trophy was up, he made sure to hand it to goaltending partner Matt Murray, who called it one of the most special moments of his life.
It was as close to a literal passing of the torch as there can be in professional sports, from one franchie cornerstone goaltender to the next in line.
Murray's reaction after the ceremony:
No. 29's time in Pittsburgh
• June 21, 2003: Taken No. 1 overall by Penguins in draft Oct. 10, 2003: Makes first career start, finishes with 46 saves in a 3-0 loss to Los Angeles. Save total remains Fleury's career-high for a regular-season game that ended in regulation.
• April 11, 2007: Gets pulled in the third period of his NHL playoff debut after stopping 30 of 36 shots faced in a 6-3 loss to Ottawa.
• June 2, 2008: Stops career-high 55 of 58 shots faced in a 4-3 triple-overtime win against Detroit to stave off elimination in Stanley Cup Final and force Game 6.
• July 3, 2008: Signs seven-year contract extension worth $35 million.
June 12, 2009: Dives in final seconds to make last of 23 saves in Stanley Cup-clinching 2-1 win over Detroit in Game 7.
• Jan. 19, 2013: Breaks Tom Barrasso's franchise career wins record (226) with 3-1 victory over Philadelphia.
• May 7, 2013: Loses starting job in playoffs to Tomas Vokoun after allowing six goals to the New York Islanders in Game 4 of first-round series.
• Nov. 5, 2015: Signs four-year contract extension worth $23 million.
• March 31, 2016: Suffers second concussion of the season when hit in the head with a shot from Nashville's James Neal. Matt Murray takes over starting goalie role en route to franchise's fourth Stanley Cup championship.
• March 19, 2017: Records last of his 375 regular-season wins with the Penguins, making 21 saves in a 4-0 shutout over Florida. Sidney Crosby has a hat trick.
• May 10, 2017: Makes 29 saves in a 2-0 shutout victory to beat the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of a second-round playoff series.
• May 17, 2017: Plays his last game with the Penguins, giving up four first-period goals before being pulled in a 5-1 loss to Ottawa in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
With franchise rank. Regular-season is minimum 50 games played. Playoffs is minimum 20 games played.
WINS — 375 (1st)
LOSSES — 216 (1st)
SAVES — 17,774 (1st)
GA — 1,713 (1st)
SO — 44 (1st)
GAA — 2.58 (2nd)
SV% — .912 (2nd)
WINS — 62 (1st)
LOSSES — 51 (1st)
SAVES — 3,002 (1st)
GA — 303 (1st)
SO — 10 (1st)
GAA — 2.65 (2nd)
SV% — .908 (3rd)