WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin fired the puck with everything he could muster.
It was a one-timer, in close range, at a point when the Washington Capitals felt like a team that needed to get one puck past Marc-Andre Fleury to activate the dominating play that had rallied them from a 3-1 series hole and pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to Game 7.
Ovechkin couldn’t help but briefly celebrate. By all reasonable hockey logic, that’s a goal. Except logic has no home when it comes to Marc-Andre Fleury in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so the deposed starting goalie and tenured postseason pariah made a ridiculously fortunate save with the shaft of his stick.
Fleury’s reaction was why even his most ardent detractors have to begrudgingly enjoy the guy: He smiled widely through his mask, that ‘aw-shucks aren’t we all having fun here?’ grin that’s crept on his face for over a decade.
And then, being a goalie and therefore being the kind of weirdo who has conversations with his goal cage, he took his stick and … um … stroked it in appreciation.
“I talk to my stick, maybe. I say ‘thank you’ and say ‘good job,’ ” recalled Fleury after the game.
Thank you, stick. Thank you, goalpost that managed to keep Nicklas Backstrom’s shot out with one minute left in the second period. Thank you, teammates, for blocking 19 Capitals’ shot attempts.
Thank you, Marc-Andre Fleury, for inexplicably being the Penguins’ best player in their seven-game victory against the Washington Capitals.
He made 29 saves in Game 7, the second Game 7 he’s won against the Capitals at Verizon Center. (Please recall he made a soul-crushing save against Ovechkin in that 2009 game, too, on a first-period breakaway.) He gave up six goals on 134 shots in the Penguins’ four victories, three of them on the road.
Those wins followed a particular template: The Capitals peppered Fleury with shots and controlled play through the first period; he held the fort; and then the Penguins preyed on an opportunity – usually born from a Capitals’ miscue – to take the lead. And then because the Capitals felt they were entitled to a goal that never materialized, they spent the rest of the game chasing the puck and being frustrated.
“Tonight was one of those nights where we needed to see something on the scoreboard from it. And we didn’t get it. That helps build the other team’s confidence,” said Washington defenseman Karl Alzner, a veteran of their playoff failures.
Also building their confidence: When their goalie happens to be having one of the best postseasons of his career.
“I think that we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t give Flower an awful lot of credit,” said center Matt Cullen. “He stole us more than one game this series and he kept us in a lot of others. We give him a lot of credit, and we’re all so happy for him and proud of him.”
One of the well-worn hockey clichés is the concept of teams “playing for each other” rather than themselves. But in the case of Marc-Andre Fleury, there’s something salient about it. He’s extraordinarily well liked in that room. The veteran guys watched him struggle through injuries in the last two years. They watched rookie Matt Murray lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup last season, taking the mantle of starter from Fleury in the process. They watched Fleury, two years removed from starting 64 games, start just 34 of them behind Murray.
And then they watched him called into action in Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, when Murray was injured in warmups, and post a .921 save percentage in 11 starts, playing his best goaltending since 2008.
“You can’t ask for a better teammate than Flower with what he’s gone through the last couple years and to step up the way he has. As a group we know there’s another gear, and I think we’re all just really happy we get a chance to find it in this next series,” said Cullen.
There are always going to be doubts about him. Those disastrous playoff performances after the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 linger on the brain, even if that was another time and under a different goalie coach. There’s always going to be scrutiny of Fleury when things don’t go well, with a sense of impending doom.
(Motion to retire the “they found a hitch in his game and it’s high glove side!” trope for playoff goaltenders, as it was actually used in this series for both Fleury and Braden Holtby at one point.)
Except Letang hasn’t played in this postseason. Crosby basically missed two games to injury against the Capitals. Malkin had one goal and two assists in the last four games of the series, but wasn’t dominating.
No, Fleury wasn’t a passenger here. He drove the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final.
“We’re not in this position moving on if he doesn’t play the way he did,” said Crosby, Fleury’s close friend and long-time advocate behind the scenes. “There were times where they had sustained pressure throughout games and he made some big saves that allowed us to stay in the game and allowed us to stay patient.”
There’s no telling what the rest of the playoffs hold for Fleury, nor is there any telling what the future holds. The underlying narrative for all of this is that he makes $5.75 million against the cap until 2019, Murray is 10 years younger and Fleury’s no-move clause necessitates that the Penguins protect him and expose Murray, which isn’t going to happen. So conventional wisdom is that Fleury will be traded after this last ride with Pittsburgh.
(Unless, of course, this run makes them trade an asset to the Vegas Golden Knights to ensure that Fleury isn’t selected in the expansion draft, thus giving the Penguins the same battery next season that had this season. But that’s a move with the heart, rather than the head, and doesn’t consider that Fleury probably wants to be a starter somewhere.)
If this is the last march with the Penguins for Fleury, it’s been a memorable one already. For the team. For the fans. And especially for the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie whose palpable joy in carrying his team can’t be contained by a goalie mask.
“It’s fun, it’s been fun. It’s tiring. It was a long series against a good team,” said Fleury.
Thanks to their veteran goalie, the Penguins get to play another one.
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