Marc-Andre Fleury will soon be returning to Pittsburgh.
Fleury will come back on Oct. 16, as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. Now that he has decided to play for the Blackhawks, any hope of a reunion with his former team seems to be out of the question. Maybe when he decides to hang up his skates, the Pittsburgh Penguins will sign him to a one-day contract, allowing him to retire with his original team.
The past week again showed Pittsburgh’s unique relationship with a goalie they once wanted gone, and now would love to have back. But, how did Penguins fans become infatuated with Fleury?
Face of Underachievement
Before we look at the brighter days, Fleury’s perceived failures must be mentioned. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins disappointed for several seasons, always making the playoffs but never winning another championship, and for a team that has a young Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, anything less than a championship is considered a failure; but Fleury was blamed.
In many cases, rightfully so. In 2010, Fleury had a 2.78 goals-against average (GAA) but a .891 save percentage (SV%) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The next postseason, he had a 2.52 GAA and .899 SV%. It didn’t get any better the following two playoffs: 4.63 and .834 in 2012 and 3.51 and .883 in 2013.
Those numbers don’t lie; Fleury played poorly in the playoffs, and that followed him through the rest of his Penguins career and to this day, in some circles.
But Fleury was also likable. He is a genuinely nice person who had come on hard times professionally. A good guy that seemed to crumble when the stakes were highest. That’s going to make some fans root for him even more, hoping for him to rise and get that one joyous moment. Others wanted to part with Fleury, a similar position to what Tristan Jarry finds himself in now, with fans wanting to move him after a subpar performance against the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2021 Playoffs.
Flipping the Switch
Somewhere along the line, Fleury figured it out. Some would say he was the primary reason the Penguins didn’t win another championship until 2016, but they are wrong. He may have been to blame for the relative lack of success from 2010-13, but go look at his performance in the 2014 and 2015 Playoffs. That is when Fleury became the goalie he is today.
In the summer of 2013, Fleury started seeing a sports psychologist. He changed some routines when the 2013-14 season began, and instead of being open to the media after morning skates, he joined most NHL goalies who choose not to.
Whatever Fleury did differently worked. He had a 2.40 GAA and .915 SV% in the 2014 postseason and was even better the next season with a 2.12 GAA and .927 SV% in the playoffs. Did he get credit? No. Why? Because the Penguins didn’t win the Cup.
Blaming Fleury was laughable but was easy because of his prior struggles. In 2014, the Penguins had a 3-1 series lead in the second round against the New York Rangers. Pittsburgh scored one goal in each of the final three games as New York advanced. In 2015, the Penguins lost to the Rangers in five games in the first round with Fleury at the helm. He allowed more than two goals only once in that series. Pittsburgh scored one goal in each of its four losses, and if there’s one thing Fleury can’t do (even though he’d like to), it’s score goals.
Again, it was easy to pin these failures on Fleury. A goalie is a lot like a quarterback, getting the bulk of the credit when things go right and just as much blame when they go wrong. In this case, Penguins fans were divided between those who saw Fleury’s improved play as a sign he had rebounded and those who viewed his lack of series wins since 2009 as proof he couldn’t get it done.
The Last Ride
Fleury might have had his best season with the Penguins in 2015-2016. The problem? It was interrupted twice as he recovered from two separate concussions. He had a 35-17-6 record with a 2.29 GAA and .920 SV%, but his second concussion made him unavailable for the start of the playoffs.
After missing the first two games with an injury, goalie Matt Murray took over in Game 3 of the first round against the Rangers. Fleury appeared twice that postseason and got one start, but Murray led Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup.
Fleury and Murray split the starting role in 2016-17, but Fleury got his chance to finally shake the playoff narrative when Murray was injured in the warmup before Game 1 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fleury excelled. He made 31 saves on 32 shots in that game and 39 saves on 40 shots in Game 2. He had a 9-6 record with a 2.56 GAA and .924 SV% in the 2017 Playoffs, most notably making 29 saves to shut out the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the second round.
Murray eventually came back and helped lead Pittsburgh to a second straight championship, which left the writing on the wall that Fleury would be taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. Fleury hasn’t slowed and won the Vezina Trophy this season for the first time in his NHL career.
Pittsburgh’s Infatuation With Fleury
That leads us to the most recent series of events.
Fleury was shipped to the Blackhawks on July 27, yet Penguins fans wanted the organization to bring Fleury back to the city he still adores. That wasn’t going to happen for several reasons, mostly because the Penguins are in a bit of a bind when it comes to the cap. But that didn’t keep fans from hoping, dreaming, believing.
And, really, it’s understandable. Fleury is the best goalie in the history of a now decorated franchise. He delivered *that* save at the end of Game 7 in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. He has the records. He was the first of what could be considered the “core four” of modern Penguins hockey (Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury) to arrive, drafted first overall by Pittsburgh in 2003.
But there’s more to it than that. Fleury is a good guy, a truly good guy. The smile isn’t fake. The humility is real. As Han Solo once said, “It’s all true. All of it.”
I covered Fleury’s last event in Pittsburgh, a signing at a Dick’s Sporting Goods right down the street from the team’s practice facility. The store was packed, and there was Fleury, smiling, chatting, taking time to greet each and every person. Fleury thanked me, a member of the media. I’m not sure why, but he did. That was on June 20, 2017. Fleury became a member of the Golden Knights the next day.
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Fleury no longer speaks after morning skates, but on Oct. 19, 2019, he made an exception. The Golden Knights hadn’t practiced in Pittsburgh the day before, leaving little opportunity for the local media to interview Fleury before Vegas faced the Penguins that Saturday. Knowing this, Fleury chose to speak. He knew the media would want to talk to him. He knew Penguins fans would want to hear from him. So, he did us a favor. He didn’t need to. We all understood. But he did it because he’s a good guy.
In many ways, that’s as good a reason to root for anyone as anything else. The numbers are there. The championships obviously matter. But those accomplishments are amplified when wrapped around an athlete who comes off as a real person, positively contributes to the community, and genuinely cares about their fans. That is the reason Penguins fans, as long as there’s even the slimmest chance, will want Fleury back.