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Pittsburgh’s Flower becomes Vegas’ Knight in shining armor

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Marc-Andre Fleury thwarts a stuff attempt Tuesday night by the Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner. - AP

LAS VEGAS -- If you squinted hard enough Tuesday night, and could somehow look past the unfamiliar grey jersey, you’d swear it might be PPG Paints Arena or maybe across Centre Avenue at the old Igloo.

Alas, Las Vegas isn’t Pittsburgh, as if the neon lights of the casinos and the Elvis impersonators weren’t reminder enough.

But that man behind the mask in the Vegas Golden Knights sweater was, in fact, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Despite a torrid start that has the expansion Golden Knights — for now — thinking playoffs, expectations are a little different for Fleury and his new team. It’s one of the myriad reasons why the Knights were clamoring to make the 33-year-old the fledgling franchise’s first goaltender last summer. On Tuesday, in his first game action since suffering a concussion 60 days earlier, Fleury looked sharp, making 35 saves in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes before a raucous crowd at T-Mobile Arena. 

But it wasn’t the pad stop on Jeff Skinner in the final three minutes of the second period or the amazing diving, no-look paddle stop midway through the third that stood out (Fleury’s lateral quickness and athleticism remain world class, by the way).

No, what really stood out was the first goal that Fleury allowed that will assuredly play on blooper reels for, oh, a few decades. 

Vegas’ Brayden McNabb, a 26-year-old journeyman defenseman, made one of those errors we’ve all come to expect from an expansion team. Standing behind his own goal, McNabb fired a stretch pass that went all of 10 feet, caroming off Carolina’s Marcus Kruger at the right side of the Vegas net and in.

In one of those teachable moments for a team that will certainly be taught a few along the course of its inaugural season, Fleury didn’t slam his stick over the crossbar, didn’t fire the puck down the ice. He tapped his defenseman’s shin pads, with a “don’t worry about it.”

That is what makes Fleury, well, Fleury. Goalies don’t wear Cs or As, but he is a de facto captain.

“A great goaltender,” another old friend, Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, was saying. “He’s been around for a long time. To get him back as a person, as a teammate, it’s huge for our team. He’s a leader in this locker room. He battles, he battles every night.”

Naturally, Fleury wasn’t happy with the result, saying he thought he got better as the game went on and he was able to shake off some rust. But with a much-anticipated game against his former team awaiting on Thursday, he’ll have to shake it off quickly.

Admittedly, it’ll be a little odd facing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, et al.

“So many guys I played with for so many years,” he said. “I know what they like to do and they know what I like to do. Maybe, hopefully, there’s not too much thinking out there and I can play my usual game and do good against them.”

And if Crosby or Malkin is within earshot, you better believe he’ll say something:

For the Knights, the Penguins will be a challenge, a measuring stick. 

“They are a good team,” Fleury said, distancing himself from his former team. “Obviously they’re Cup champs, so it's a good challenge for our team.”

And that showdown with Matt Murray, his successor in Pittsburgh?

“It doesn’t bother me too much.”

With Fleury, nothing usually does.

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The Penguins have known this moment was coming for months, yet it doesn’t make it any easier or any less bittersweet. Thursday will be an emotional game for all involved.

“I think anytime you see old teammates, it brings back some good memories, especially for a guy who was so important to this team and this organization for so many years,” Bryan Rust said. “Flower’s such an amazing guy on and off the ice. I think it’s going to hit home for a few guys.” 

The selection of Fleury first overall in the 2003 NHL Draft — followed in successive years by first-rounders Malkin, Crosby and Jordan Staal — lifted the Penguins out of what then-GM Craig Patrick called “survival mode” and catapulted the franchise at or near the top of the NHL for a decade.

But like Hall of Famers Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek, Fleury wasn’t afforded the opportunity to retire with the team that drafted him. Murray's rapid ascent as a franchise goalie effectively pushed Fleury out the door last summer after 13 remarkable seasons.

Crosby might be the face of the franchise, and of the NHL, but Fleury holds a special place close to Pittsburghers' hearts and those of his teammates. He is that rare Pittsburgh athlete who is more popular now than when he wore black and gold. His brilliant diving stop of Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Final was his signature moment in a Penguins uniform, but it was his effervescent smile and demeanor, present in good times and bad, that was his trademark. In temperament and actual human interaction, he was the anti-Tom Barrasso, who he surpassed for nearly every franchise record for a goalie. With his smile and calm demeanor, Fleury was the ultimate good guy to all concerned. Teammates old and new speak glowingly of “Flower” as a teammate, a professional, a father and a man.

"We miss him, obviously," said Kris Letang, one of Fleury’s closest friends with the Penguins. "Great guy. Great person. Very good for the Penguins organization for so long."

Ian Cole, who kept in touch with Fleury via text during his recovery from a concussion, was hoping to get together with his friend for a home-cooked meal on Wednesday.

A week ago, the Penguins might have even been OK with Fleury getting a win against his former team on Thursday. Not now. After dropping three of five on their recent homestand, the Penguins' pre-Christmas trip to Las Vegas isn't exactly the vacation it appeared to be when the NHL schedule was released. The Penguins need a win and, actually, they could use a little bit of Fleury to rub off on them. Tristan Jarry appears to have taken Fleury’s place as the No. 2 behind Murray, but the two-time defending champions could use one of Fleury’s trademark jokes right about now, like nailing a teammate’s shoes to the locker room floor, or cutting off a necktie or just, well, Flower being Flower.   

"Flower is irreplaceable," Cole said. "We try to do it by committee."

"We have new guys, so every year is going to change, you know," Letang said. “But when you're used to having a guy like that, you lose some of that looseness. The fun being in the room, like playing jokes, that's what he brought."

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Three months ago, Jim, a kind, middle-aged Uber driver who whisks tourists and reporters alike from McCarron International Airport to this town’s many, many hotels, didn’t know if a puck was stuffed or inflated.

These days the lifelong Vegas resident knows that the puck is vulcanized frozen rubber, but mostly he knows that the Golden Knights are good for business.

On the ride in, Jim excitedly informed me Tuesday morning that the Knights were playing the Hurricanes as he whipped his red Altima down the side streets of Sin City.

“The building is packed every night,” he said. “Everyone’s giddy about the team.”

Who’s the most popular player?

“The goalie. Mike, Mike Andre Fleury,” Jim answered. “Seems like a good guy."

Mike-Andre, huh? Close enough.

“Yeah, pretty good goalie, too.”

[caption id="attachment_504673" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Inside and around Las Vegas' T-Mobile Arena. - CHRIS BRADFORD / DKPS[/caption]

It seems one can’t walk too far in fabulous Las Vegas without seeing some kind of reminder of Sin City’s first major professional sports team. A kiosk greets you at the main concourse at McCarron, peddling jerseys, hats, pucks, anything Knights black and gray. The streetlights outside the New York, New York hotel — which, by the way, offers a better view of the Manhattan skyline than Madison Square Garden — are adorned with Knights banners.

Almost all Knights gear comes with the hashtag #VegasStrong. More than just providing a rallying cry, Fleury and teammates have helped galvanize a city that was shaken to its core on Oct. 1. Just nine days before the first regular-season game, a gunman opened fire on concertgoers at a fairgrounds on the Strip about a mile from T-Mobile Arena, killing 58 and wounding 546.

Despite that, the crowds still flock to the Strip. Vegas strong, indeed. The Knights have sold out their first 13 home dates, averaging 17,780 fans in 17,500-seat T-Mobile Arena, where they were 11-2 entering Tuesday.

That, and the Knights’ strong play, have alleviated fears that a second NHL team in the southwest was doomed for failure. The atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena is about what one would expect in the most non-traditional market for hockey or, really, any other sport. There are the scantily clad cheerleaders and there is a band that plays from a castle on the upper deck during stoppages in play.

It’s cheesy, but it’s all in fun. And it’s all so Vegas.

“I’ve been there, like, a million times,” Letang said. “It’s nothing new to me.”

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Indeed, the Golden Knights are everywhere, including — and most impressively — second place in the Pacific Division. They are the biggest surprise of the NHL this season and, with 39 points in 29 games, are on pace to obliterate the points and wins totals records for an expansion franchise.

Oh, and they’ve done it by using five — five! — goalies, due to injuries.

“It’s a credit to them to go through what they went through,” Crosby told me. “A lot of teams make excuses for a situation like that, but they just continue to play though it. Shows what kind of team they are.”

Perhaps being diplomatic about a Vegas team that includes other former Penguins like James Neal, David Perron and Deryk Engelland, Letang said he is not the least bit surprised by anything.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think they got tremendous players. Like, obviously, chemistry is a big thing in hockey now, and that first sign is that they all stick together. But when you get players with the caliber of Flower and Nealer and Perron and Jonathan Marchessault, all those guys … it’s better than going to the draft and signing from scratch. I think people misunderstand what was going on. These are top players in the league, 30-goal scorers, north of 50 points a year. Yeah, they’ve got good people.”

OK, outside of Letang, not too many people pegged the Golden Knights as a playoff team. Yet 30 games in, that’s exactly what they would be if the season ended today. And Vegas isn’t just a mirage in the desert. They are winning and winning impressively. Their 103 goals are sixth-best, their .672 winning percentage fifth.

Where expansion teams of the past have floundered with rosters composed of has-beens and never-wases, these Knights have some proven pieces. Unlike expansion drafts in years past, where there were two teams feeding off the same pool of players, the Knights were able to stock a roster of quality players, many of whose fault lied only in their contracts, not in their play.

"They were put in a good spot in the expansion draft," Cole said. "There were a lot of good players that were forced to be available by teams, and you can see that with how successful they've been."

In the expansion draft, Knights general manager George McPhee doubled down on those who could score — guys like former Penguins Neal and Perron, and Marchessault, a former Florida Panther. They also landed players with character, guys like Fleury, who has it in spades. The thinking was, if the Knights weren’t going to win, at least they could entertain to better compete with Cirque du Soleil and all else the city has to offer. McPhee complemented the above players with solid veterans like Nate Schmidt (a defenseman from Washington), Reilly Smith (a former 25-goal scorer from Florida), Luca Sbisa (from Anaheim) and Engelland (from Calgary).

“Every player in this league is good, every team in this league is good,” said Rust.

And in the case of Neal, maybe a little too good. Clearly, management wasn’t expecting to be this good this soon. The former 40-goal man is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, leading to an interesting dilemma: Do the Knights sign the 30-year-old to a long-term contract extension or do they risk letting their second-leading goal scorer walk for nothing in the summer? Or do they trade Neal before the deadline to acquire assets and build for the future?

Then again, when you can still win despite having started five different goalies in 29 games, anything is possible.

“If you get a bunch of guys who believe together," Rust said, "then I think you can win games.”

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Other than being of French-Canadian descent and exposed in an expansion draft by the Penguins, Yvon Labre’s story really doesn’t have too much in common with Fleury's.

For that, the former Penguins goalie should count himself as fortunate.

However, Labre’s story is far more common for a player on an expansion team than anything Fleury and his Vegas teammates have experienced so far in their inaugural season.

“I lived through it, that was bad enough,” Labre told me this week with a laugh. "I'm pulling for those guys in Vegas."

Labre had been a mildly promising defensive-minded defenseman in the Pittsburgh organization in the early 1970s, but he was more than happy to move on in the 1974 player dispersal draft after appearing in just 37 games for the Penguins the previous three seasons. The writing was on the wall, he said, after the organization made a series of trades.

“I wanted a regular shift, not sitting in the press box,” the 68-year-old Labre said. “So I had to ask them to go back to Hershey.”

Returned to the AHL, Labre went on to win the Calder Cup in 1973-74. Later that summer, he became the fourth overall selection of the expansion Washington Capitals. 

No, Labre didn’t go on to win the Stanley Cup. It was more like a can, the Stanley Can. That was the Capitals’ makeshift “trophy” for beating the California Golden Seals on March 28, 1975, Washington’s lone road win that season. The joke was the brainchild of Tommy Williams, Washington’s leading goal-scorer, who made good use of an empty trash can in the Capitals dressing room. Williams and a few overzealous teammates paraded the can around the streets of Oakland.

The ’73-’74 Capitals are widely considered the worst expansion team in NHL history, if not all of pro sports, for good reason. In addition to the worst road record in league history, they went just 8-67-5 for 21 points. Their .131 win percentage remains a league record and they averaged just 10,004 fans — about 8,000 below capacity — at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.

“It was a long, tough season,” Labre said. “The only time I get interviewed now is because of that.”

Labre’s Capitals never made the playoffs, let alone win the real Cup, in his seven seasons. In fact, as Pittsburgh fans are well aware, Washington is still searching for its first. Still, Labre is proud of the work he accomplished in D.C. For his off-ice work later as a coach, broadcaster and community ambassador, Labre’s  No. 7 was the first jersey to be retired by the Capitals.

“It wasn’t a hockey town back then, but it is now,” Labre said.

In that sense, maybe Labre and Fleury aren’t all that different.

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Even after a loss that Knights coach Gerard Gallant pinned on “everyone but our goalie,” Fleury was able to find some humor in it.

As his scrum with reporters was wrapping up late Tuesday night, he was asked if he was planning to meet with Carolina goaltending coach Mike Bales, who held the same role in Pittsburgh the previous four years. Like Fleury, Bales was also let go after helping the Penguins to two straight championships.

“No, not yet,” Fleury deadpanned. “I think I’ll catch him before he goes and tell him to stop telling all his guys where to shoot.” 

No word if that meeting actually occurred, but before he slipped into the night, Fleury was in the bowels of the arena chatting it up with Carolina co-captain Jordan Staal, another one of the pillars of Pittsburgh’s success the past decade-plus, who has also been cast off.

Once a Penguin, always a Penguin.

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