Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a first period save on Scott Hartnell #43 of the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 12, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Marc-Andre Fleury found out that he would be the starting goaltender for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series like the rest of us, after watching Matt Murray skate off the ice during pre-game warmups.
If this was a cruel irony for Murray, it was a delicious one for Fleury.
The Flower returned to the crease the same way he lost his starting job last spring — through injury — the way the unwritten rules say a starter isn't supposed to be unseated.
The Penguins were fortunate to have one Stanley Cup-champion goalie to replace another in the 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night atPPG Paints Arena.
Murray had been named the starter but skated off in pregame warmups, and the Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the NBC-TV crew that it was a lower-body injury. Murray had injured his right leg against New Jersey last week then sat out the final regular-season games against Toronto and the New York Rangers.
When Fleury was introduced as the starting goaltender, the sellout, standing-room-only crowd of 18,563 at PPG Paints Arena responded with a roaring ovation that nearly blew the lid off the Paint Can. Fleury has long been a lightning rod of criticism for Penguins fans, but they know he feeds off their energy and enthusiasm with his play between the pipes.
“He's a world-class goaltender, and we're very fortunate to have two of them,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “They both played great for us all year. ‘Flower' has been a rock for us to lean on all season. You saw how dominant he can be when he steps in.”
We saw that especially in the first period, when the Penguins were outshot 16-3. Fleury stopped every shot, including one by defenseman Zach Werenski from the right circle.
“I was a little nervous at the beginning, maybe from not expecting it,” Fleury said, “but the guys did a great job in front of me, too, all game long — blocking shots and deflecting rebounds away.”
If the Penguins got a Fleury that was solid if unspectacular, that was fine by them.
A year ago, they were in a similar situation yet one that was entirely different.
Fleury was spectacular in going 35-17-6, with a 2.29 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts last season before sustaining a concussion against Nashville on March 31. He missed the final six games of the regular season and wasn't cleared to play until May 2.
Murray also was concussed, thanks to an ill-advised decision to play him against the Flyers in the final regular-season game. That left backup Jeff Zatkoff to start Game 1 of the first-round series against the N.Y. Rangers, and Zatkoff answered with 35 saves in a 5-2 victory.
“All due respect to (Zatkoff), I think Flower and (Zatkoff) are two different goaltenders,” Cole said. “We had a ton of confidence in Zatkoff, but we have even more confidence in Flower and what he can do when he steps in there. No one was rattled. Everyone knows if we play our game we can put a good game in front of any goaltender.”
Fleury stopped 31 shots in outdueling Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, and it only reinforced the Penguins' decision to keep from dealing him at the trade deadline. By then, Murray had won the starting job outright after starting 21 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, going 15-6 with a .923 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average in leading the Penguins to their four Cup championship.
Fleury appeared in only two games, relieving Murray in the third period of a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final and earning a start for Game 5. Fleury, however, allowed four goals on 24 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss and didn't return to the crease again. That he was the clear No. 2 this season made it difficult for Fleury.
“There was some stressful moments during the season,” Fleury said. “Sometimes, I had to find ways to stay sharp without playing too much. Towards the end, I thought things were getting a little better. I'm just trying to build on that and get ready in case this ever happened.”
Fleury's handling of the situation, however, made it tenable for the Penguins.
“He's a great goaltender. He's a terrific kid. He's a great competitor. He's a good pro. He's a great teammate. That just speaks volumes of his character,” Sullivan said. “It was a difficult year for him, no question. But he's such a good person and such a good pro that he handled it as well as anyone. I think that's the only way that our goalie situation was able to work as effectively as it did: Because the two guys that play goal for us are real good people, and they get along. They have a friendship.
“Obviously, they're competitors and they both want the net. There are times when there isn't enough net for both of them. That's just the reality of it. But I thought both of them handled it extremely well. And Marc, who's been accustomed to being the No. 1 guy for so long, I thought just did a tremendous job — and that just speaks to the person that he is and the teammate that he is.”
Such a good person, teammate and goaltender that the Penguins felt bad after Fleury went 52 minutes, 41 seconds before allowing a goal, when Matt Calvert scored to cut the Columbus deficit to 3-1.
“It's unfortunate that they scored there late because it would've been great to get him a shutout,” Cole said. “Him being able to step up tonight like he did, it shouldn't be a big story because he's done it all year for us, he's done it for 10 years of his career and he just played how everyone expected him to play and he played fantastic.”
It was a wonderful moment for Fleury, and perhaps not his final one.