PITTSBURGH--There's a Flower blooming in the Vegas desert. The colony of Penguins in Pittsburgh is coming back from the brink of extinction.
I'm only an amateur gardener, but it’s delicate work to transplant something from someplace to another and see it thrive. I’m definitely not an ornithologist, but it’s difficult work to reinvent a culture and see it thrive.
Marc-Andre Fleury got to be the no. 1 pick again--officially no. 29, fittingly--this time for Vegas, but he was fated to be the first choice as far back as February when he waived his no-trade clause to give Pittsburgh the chance to pursue the repeat.
There's no telling who or what the Penguins would have had to give up to keep Fleury and no. 1 netminder Matt Murray. There's no guarantee Fleury would have endured another season as the backup to an upstart.
Ensuring Vegas made Fleury its franchise goalie--and didn't take the likes of “Big Game” Bryan Rust or blue-collar blueliner Ian Cole--cost Pittsburgh a second-rounder in 2020, a reasonable move for a team with a 22-year-old two-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender in Murray between the pipes.
As in 2003, Fleury has become the face of a franchise, now 33 instead of 18, now Vegas instead of Pittsburgh, but always no. 29. Traditionally goalies are never captains--not that Vegas has one--but Fleury has become an instant leader in the locker room alongside the team’s five(!) alternate captains.
The moves Vegas and Pittsburgh made were the right ones, though it hasn’t always appeared that way so far this season.
Early on the Flower withered (no fault of his own) while the Penguins marched in reverse (little fault to Murray). The Golden Knights rallied with purpose as the ragtag castoffs found their identity. Meanwhile the Penguins struggled with consistency as the underachieving champions lost their identity.
Back on October 21, the Golden Knights had staked their claim to a blistering 6-1 start behind a trio of goaltenders. Veteran Fleury went out with a concussion after the fourth game of the inaugural season for the expansion team. But he had stood tall in back-to-back road wins and showed poise in a home opener that was somber instead of spectacular, shouldering the weight of a city reeling from the worst domestic terror attack in United States history. His presence had propelled the Golden Knights to the best start for an NHL expansion team at 3-0. But that concussion relegated him to a familiar role, mentoring an up-and-coming Malcolm Subban and call-up Oscar Dansk.
Back on October 21, Pittsburgh looked nothing like the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, going 5-3-1 despite lackluster defensive efforts. Murray, now the Penguins’ undisputed no. 1, was forced to come on in “relief” of then-backup Antti Niemi in a 10-1 debacle in Chicago, just a day after going down in OT in the home opener with a new banner in the rafters of PPG Paints Arena. Murray bounced back to shut out Nashville in a Stanley Cup Finals rematch on his way to five straight wins while all three regulation losses came in the second of back-to-back games at the expense of the veteran Niemi, who was placed on waivers days later.
Going into their first matchup on December 14, both teams had experienced instability in goal, yet were on different trajectories.
Vegas had played five goalies yet somehow sustained second place in the Pacific, having yet to reach double-digit losses at 19-9-2. Fleury’s return had been spoiled in a 4-3 shootout loss to Carolina, just the third loss on home ice for the expansion team.
Pittsburgh, already through its eighth of a league-high 19 back-to-back contests, sat at 16-13-3, sixth in the Metro and out of a wildcard spot. Murray had been week-to-week with a lower-body injury sustained at the end of November against--who else?--the Flyers when Jakub Voracek crashed the net in a 5-4 overtime grudge match victory. The Penguins were relegated to rotating backups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry. Vegas would be Murray’s comeback.
Fleury had missed two months. Murray had missed two weeks.
Fleury earned the win to improve to 4-1-1. The 2-1 victory over his former team wasn’t as close as the box score suggested. Vegas tilted their home ice, sustaining zone pressure and controlling possession for much of the second period, creating higher-quality scoring chances throughout.
Following the pattern of most Penguins wins, they pushed a strong start from puck drop, setting up an early score. Following the pattern of most Penguins letdowns, they let off midway through the first period, leading to a Vegas score. The Golden Knights were as relentless as Pittsburgh was lackadaisical in the second frame, and the Penguins’ late effort to play themselves back into the game was not enough.
Murray kept Pittsburgh in it, even if he couldn’t win it. His 11-8-1 record told an unfair story of his season.
Yet I wondered if the Penguins had given up the wrong goalie.
Vegas surged through the final weeks of 2017, finishing December 11-1-1. Pittsburgh couldn’t string two wins together, culminating in a New Year’s Eve disappointment in Detroit and a 6-8-0 record for the month.
As the calendar turned to 2018, the Golden Knights continued their rampage, solidifying the top spot in their division and challenging Tampa Bay for the best record in hockey. Fleury went to Tampa himself, showcasing his athleticism as an All-Star and winning the first-ever Save Streak competition. He made 14 outstanding saves including a magnificent stop on a Brayden Point shot while cartwheeling in the cage and a shifty poke-check of Brad Marchand. Of course he got some assistance from his beloved posts, too. That opportunity never would’ve happened in Pittsburgh.
The New Year brought new resolution for the Penguins. As Murray took a leave of absence to be with his father, and again after his father’s passing, Pittsburgh rallied around him, playing into wildcard position by going 5-2-0 behind Jarry and DeSmith. And coming out of the All-Star break, the Penguins continued their upward momentum, challenging for a top-three finish in the toughest division.
Now I'm confident the Golden Knights and Penguins both have the netminders they need.
Fleury, with 12 fewer games played than his former teammate, has gone 15-4-2, 17 of which were quality starts. His .939 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average are second-best amongst goaltenders with 20 games played.
Certainly Murray could've benefited from more time with the man who was his mentor, especially given his team’s early struggles and more recent grief. Yet, in spite of it all, Murray has compiled a 17-12-1 record in 30 starts, managing a .905 save percentage and letting in 2.93 goals-against in 33 games played.
In Fleury’s absence, Jarry has proven himself worthy of next-man-up status behind former AHL teammate Murray. He has compiled a 9-4-2 record in 16 starts, with a .919 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against in 18 games.
The lack of an established backup also enabled DeSmith, the other half of the 2016-2017 Harry "Hap" Holmes Memorial Award tandem with Jarry, to emerge. His call-ups to Pittsburgh signalled a surprising rise from his 2015 start with the organization’s ECHL affiliate, where he was buried in the Wheeling Nailers depth chart. DeSmith has only 2.23 goals-against with a .926 save percentage in 7 games with 5 starts.
And Fleury-to-Vegas indirectly reanimated the much-maligned Niemi's career: after being waived by Pittsburgh and later Florida, the Finn just keyed a 43-save 5-2 win against the Ducks for Montreal(!). With the Canadiens, the veteran netminder has gone a moderately respectable 2-1-1, his save percentage improving from .797 as a Penguin to .929 in Montreal. Blame Canada.
The way Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh ended, earning his third Stanley Cup, also made him a legend. He went out of town on top, stepping in and up for two memorable postseason series when Murray went down in warmups before the first game of the first round. He nearly swept Columbus. He withstood the Capitals’ comeback from down 3-1 in the second round.
But Pittsburghers seem to have forgotten that his 5-1 setback in game three against the Senators in the Eastern Conference Final forced the switch back to Murray.
Penguins fans also seem to have forgotten the 7-year postseason itch.
They forget 2012, when the Penguins fell to the Flyers in a forgettable series. Pittsburgh, favored to go all the way, gave up home-ice advantage and back-to-back 8-goals-against games to finish the season in the first round. Fleury was .834 in goal for the series with only one game above .900 and two below .800.
They forget 2013, when Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun in the first round. Fleury started well enough with a 26-save shutout. But, after dropping a 6-4 slugfest in game four against the Islanders, allowing the six goals on 24 shots, Fleury was benched. Vokoun came on and took the top-seeded regular season conference champs all the way to the Eastern Conference Final against eventual-runners-up Boston. Fleury saw action just once more that postseason, when Vokoun was pulled after allowing three quick goals to the Bruins in game two; he allowed three more for a 6-1 final. With the Penguins managing just 2 goals in support, Boston swept the series.
They forget 2014, when the Rangers rallied around a bereaved Martin St. Louis to send the Penguins packing. Down 3-1 in the second-round series thanks to two Fleury shutouts, St. Louis and the Rangers vowed to play on in his mother’s memory. A 5-1 result and two more unlikely wins meant New York advanced.
How time--and back-to-back Stanley Cups--heals all!
Fleury is once again adored, now by two fanbases as well as across the league.
Tonight Pittsburghers have been given the opportunity to appreciate him, to celebrate him.
Tonight the Golden Knights and Penguins face off in their final showdown this season, unless Vegas becomes the first expansion team to make the playoffs in its inaugural year and somehow the Stanley Cup Final pits the Golden Knights against Pittsburgh.
It’s possible. The first major sports franchise in Sin City is the record-breaking, movie-worthy, feel-good story of the season. The reigning champs are overcoming everything the league and life has thrown at them.
Fleury is flourishing. The Penguins are winning.
And with Fleury and Murray in the crease for the Golden Knights and Penguins, respectively, everyone is where they should be.