On the back of Marc-Andre Fleury‘s goalie mask this season is a quote: “Mets ton oeil dessus. Tu joues comme tu pratiques. Amuse-toi.”
Translated from French: “Keep your eye on it. You practice as you play. Have fun.”
The quote is signed “Pa,” which is what Fleury called his father, Andre.
“He’s been telling me that since I was a kid,” Fleury says. “Even in my adult life, he was telling me that before the game.”
This season, the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender looks like he’s having fun again — and thriving. He has gone 17-7-0 with a .927 save percentage (tied for his career best), a 2.06 goals-against average (a career best) and four shutouts. He stands at 483 career wins, one shy of tying Eddie Belfour for fourth all time. Despite all of his career achievements, including three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, the team that selected him No. 1 overall in 2003, Fleury has never been a top-three finalist for the Vezina Trophy. The 36-year-old is on track to change that this summer.
But it has all come after perhaps the most tumultuous season of Fleury’s career. After being the face of the Golden Knights for the franchise’s first 2½ years of existence, Fleury lost his starting job to Robin Lehner in the playoffs, after Vegas surprisingly traded for the former Chicago netminder at the deadline. (That decision to lean on Lehner in the playoffs sparked a tweet from Fleury’s agent featuring a photoshopped sword with Vegas coach Peter DeBoer’s name on it going through Fleury’s back.) The Golden Knights handed Lehner a five-year extension this offseason, triggering trade rumors for Fleury. His former GM in Pittsburgh, Jim Rutherford, even tried acquiring him back.
That all pales in comparison to what was going on personally for Fleury, who was mourning the loss of his father, Andre, who died from lung cancer at age 63 in November 2019.
Grief isn’t easy to talk about, and for most of last season, Fleury didn’t.
“Hockey is always a way to escape reality,” Fleury said. “You just go on the ice, you fool around. Our days are always busy; I’m at the rink, then I go home and I have three kids. I always have something on my mind.”
Fleury paused. “But sometimes you stop and think about it, and it’s still surreal that he’s gone,” he said. “And I won’t get to see him in the summers when I go home. That’s really hard.”
Fleury was raised in Sorel-Tracy, a small town in Quebec about an hour northeast of Montreal. Andre Fleury was a carpenter who built his family’s home, as well as many others in town. He also instilled the love of hockey in his son.
“He’s your dad, the guy you always look up to,” Marc-Andre said. “He was always a tough guy, never one to go to the hospital, working in construction all his life.”
Andre Fleury was also a smoker. “He stopped many years ago,” Marc-Andre said. “But I guess the damage was already done.”
Andre Fleury was diagnosed with lung cancer the year before he passed.
“He started treatment, and I got to spend the summer with him, and we would go to the doctor and different things,” Marc-Andre said. “But the cancer was so advanced. We just looked for different ways to slow it down. It was tough to see him weak, and in this position.”
Fleury returned to Vegas ahead of last season, but for his father, things got worse.
“Obviously it’s on your mind, right? I was always thinking about him,” Fleury said. “Sometimes I wish I could have been there more for him, because you’re always on the road. He was in Quebec, and my sister was with him.”
In October 2019, Fleury sent his father to an advanced clinic in Mexico. “He was there a little bit to try to help him out, but it didn’t work out so well,” Fleury said. “So he returned home. A few weeks later, that’s when I got the news, he was in the hospital.”
The Golden Knights were on a road trip in Nashville in late November, and Fleury immediately flew to Quebec.
He was able to say goodbye to his father before he died on Nov. 27. Fleury stayed with his sister for a week to mourn with his family, then returned to the team. Though Fleury says management and teammates were extremely supportive, he compartmentalized his emotions.
“You’re around the guys, and nobody really talked about it,” Fleury said. “We just went out there and played hockey, and I thought that was a good way to do it.”
Fleury shined in his first game back on Dec. 10. He stopped 28 of 29 shots in a win against the Blackhawks. But over the next two months, he wasn’t quite himself, posting an .885 save percentage over 20 starts.
“I liked going to the rink and playing, and it felt good to do something I liked to do,” Fleury said. “But I also didn’t have my best stretch of my season at that time. I didn’t play my best hockey after that.”
The Golden Knights traded for Lehner on Feb. 24. As a 17-year veteran, Fleury understands that hockey is a business. He holds no ill will, especially toward Lehner, and he says the two have a great relationship.
“We have different styles in net, but the two of us both love the game,” Fleury says. “And if something happens, a goal or something, I know I can always ask him, ‘What did you think? What did you see?'”
Those who know Fleury know that throughout his career he has played better when he gets to play more. The goaltender can’t quite explain why, but he thinks less about distractions when he can get into a groove. Lehner was out nearly six weeks this season because of a concussion, and it’s hard not to correlate Fleury’s performance with regaining a regular starter’s workload.
Fleury isn’t ready to go that far. He credits his success to his teammates — “When a goalie plays for a great team, it can make us look a little better,” he said — as well as the second chance he was given in Vegas.
“In my head, I never want to quit,” he said. “I’ve had lots of ups and downs throughout my career. Maybe losing my job in Pittsburgh was one of those. I just wanted to prove to myself that I can bounce back, and I could battle back and still play, right? I still enjoy this game. I’m just glad I am able to still play it. I know there’s a lot more years behind me than in front, so I’m just trying to enjoy the last few here. As long as the body holds up, and I still can help my team, I still can have fun, hopefully my career lasts a few more years here.”
Emptying the notebook
The trade deadline is two weeks away, and now that the Canadian federal government has eased its quarantine period for American-based players coming over (from 14 days to seven days) the market could open up. We saw the immediate impact with the Canadiens acquiring Buffalo’s Eric Staal — and Staal willing to waive his no-trade clause, in part because of the softened quarantine.
I was catching up with an assistant general manager over the weekend and asked him which team he believed held the keys to the deadline. “Nashville,” he said. “I’m really interested to see what they’re going to do.”
Two weeks ago, the Predators looked like they were bottoming out. They had a .411 win percentage at the time (only the Ducks, Senators, Devils, Red Wings and Sabres were worse). Since then, they’ve won seven of eight games to pull into a tie with the Chicago Blackhawks for the final Central Division playoff spot. The Blackhawks, by the way, have a .375 winning percentage since the beginning of March.
The biggest reason for the Predators’ recent surge is stellar goaltending. Juuse Saros returned from injured reserve (upper-body injury) and has allowed one or fewer goals in each of his five starts since. Between Saros and Pekka Rinne, the Predators have a .962 save percentage over the last two weeks, tops in the league.
So what does Nashville do? We know this team has been steadily declining since its 2017 Stanley Cup Final appearance. GM David Poile has promised a youth movement, but it never arrived. The best way to kickstart a youth movement is with an influx of prospects and draft picks.
Mattias Ekholm‘s name has been circulating for a while as the hot trade candidate. He would probably be the best defenseman available, and has an attractive cap hit ($3.75 million) and an additional year on his contract beyond this one, which is extremely desirable to teams. Filip Forsberg has also been rumored as a trade candidate, though it would take a big package to convince the Preds to move their best offensive talent. Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula are on expiring contracts, and two weeks ago would have been sure bets to move.
It’s important to establish a winning culture. Get in the playoffs and anything can happen, right? But if the Predators stand pat, and make the playoffs, likely as the Central’s fourth seed, they’re looking at a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning or Carolina Hurricanes in the opening round. Another one-and-done exit means the Predators will start next season … exactly as they began this one.
Three stars of the week
The 22-year-old Czech is having a major breakout for the Canes — and developing major chemistry with Sebastian Aho. Necas factored in all four Carolina goals against the Lightning on Saturday, including the game-winner. He had four goals and three assists in three games this week.
Two goals tonight including this game winner.
— NHL (@NHL) March 28, 2021
Phil the Thrill is back. He scored in three straight games this week, including a hat trick against the Sharks on Saturday; Arizona won all three contests. The Yotes are breathing down the Blues’ neck for the fourth playoff spot in the West. His drip is also extremely on brand.
Purple rain. 💧 pic.twitter.com/NeOWd0ruSL
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) March 24, 2021
The Swede is now the ultimate Flyer killer after another ridiculous output (three goals, three assists) in another blowout win. He became the third player in NHL history to record two games with six or more points against the same opponent in a single season — and first to do so in nearly 80 years. He also keeps it classy.
We all know there’s only one KING 👑 🥰 pic.twitter.com/u409FPhoqS
— Mika Zibanejad (@MikaZibanejad) March 21, 2021
What we liked this week
1. I want to say Adam Fox is quietly blossoming into a star in New York, but if you’ve watched a Rangers game this season, you’ve likely heard him being gushed about (by either the MSG crew or the oppositions’ broadcast).
Nonetheless, the 23-year-old is going to be a huge part of New York’s plans going forward. His offensive talent is undeniable; Fox is currently riding a seven-game point streak, in which he’s picked up a goal and 13 (!) assists. But it’s his all-around play that makes him so valuable. Fox was promoted to the top pairing this season — currently thriving with his former U.S. national development team program teammate, Ryan Lindgren — and has picked up new responsibilities too, like time on the penalty kill.
— NHL (@NHL) March 27, 2021
I thought this was a telling quote from Kris Knoblauch, the Hartford Wolfpack coach filling in while David Quinn was in COVID protocols. “I kind of had an idea of what kind of player he was, but seeing him in the NHL at ice level has been eye-opening for me.”
2. From the son of “The Professor.” I find this extremely relatable:
i remember i saw this picture when i was like 4 or 5 and had the biggest fear that the jumbotron at the joe would fall and crush my dad lol pic.twitter.com/adoxvM796F
— Igor Larionov II (@Igor_LarionovII) March 26, 2021
3. Last season, the story of the Penguins was how they persevered despite unrelenting injury luck. This season it’s… more of the same? Just as Evgeni Malkin was finding his game, he got hurt. But, Pittsburgh has gone 4-1-1 in his absence.
Most impressively, the Penguins were also without forwards Teddy Blueger, Mark Jankowski, Kasperi Kapanen, Brandon Tanev and Jason Zucker for Saturday’s game against the Islanders, the stingiest team in the conference. Undeterred, Pittsburgh put up six goals. In total, the Penguins have dressed 34 players this season.
Said coach MIke Sullivan: “I think these guys that have an opportunity to play at the NHL level bring a certain level of urgency and a complete level and an enthusiasm that can be contagious.” The Pens face the Islanders again on Monday, with a chance to catch New York for second place in the division.
4. Alex Ovechkin is on a heater. He’s scored 11 goals over his last 10 games to make up ground in the goal-scoring race. There are now seven players who have scored between 18 and 22 goals. The leader is still Auston Matthews, looking to become the first American to win the goal scoring crown since Keith Tkachuk in 1996-97. Buckle up, because it could be a nail-biter down the stretch.
What we didn’t like this week
1. Referee Tim Peel was caught on a hot mic admitting to a makeup call, and he got fired for it. It wasn’t just the talk of the NHL this week. The story lit up the sports world. Around the Horn had it as its A1 story on Wednesday. As one veteran player told me: “Game management happens all the time in the NHL. Tim Peel just happened to get caught.” What was wild to me was how brazen Peel was. He wasn’t just speaking on a hot mic; according to Matt Duchene in an interview with 102.5 The Game in Nashville, Peel was actually talking to the Predators bench when he said those now-infamous words.
The question everyone has is: What’s the solution? I can tell you that the NHL and director of officiating Stephen Walkom aren’t considering any major changes to their officiating program. It’s clear officials are spooked, though. Literally one day after Peel was fired, Eric Furlatt was working a Senators-Maple Leafs game. Wayne Simmonds skated over to Furlatt to argue a non-call. Before Furlatt responded, he wrapped his hand over his mic. Yeah, that’s not a coincidence.
The biggest change I’d like to see is this: transparency. Officiating hockey is challenging, and unique. The pace itself is a cardiovascular challenge. Unlike football or basketball, there’s no sideline for them to step out beyond, and they risk getting crunched by Zdeno Chara, just like any opposing player does. Generally, I think the refs do a great job, but there is a ton of nuance that goes into it. We, as fans, don’t always get to see that nuance. The NHL is the only of the four major North American professional sports leagues that doesn’t allow pool reporters to speak to officials after games. When was the last time you heard much from an NHL official about their job? I think that’s a mistake.
A few years ago, I wrote a story about how officials stay in shape to keep up with the modern NHL. It was a big deal for the NHL to approve the story and allow me to talk to officials. But once I got to speak with the crew, I was surprised to learn how much they welcomed the chance to speak to a reporter, to explain their job. It humanized them. It made me have a lot more respect for the work they do. We hear from players, coaches, executives all the time, and get their perspective. It’s time to hear from the officials more often, too.
2. Absolutely gutting to see Aaron Ekblad get taken off the ice in a stretcher after falling into the boards in Sunday’s game. It looked like his skate got caught and his left knee buckled under him, and it’s just brutal for a guy having the best season of his career. Ekblad’s 11 goals were tied for most among defenseman, and he was on track to receive some serious Norris Trophy consideration.
Aaron Ekblad waves to the crowd as he’s stretchered off the ice following a leg injury pic.twitter.com/R8K9V3U5dS
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) March 28, 2021
Injuries are starting to pile up for the Panthers, the darlings of the season’s first half. Captain Aleksander Barkov missed his third straight game (lower-body injury) while Patric Hornqvist has also missed time.
3. Darryl Sutter has a reputation for being a tough, old-school coach, and GM Brad Treliving clearly brought him in to light a fire under the underacheiving group. However, I found this exchange, ahead of what should be a positive day for Johnny Gaudreau, unnecessarily snarky, petty, and frankly mean-spirited. There are other ways to motivate players besides tearing them down — especially publicly:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 27, 2021
4. What’s worse: That the Buffalo Sabres on a 17-game winless stretch, or the continued debate over the semantics over what constitutes a losing streak? (Buffalo is 0-15-2 in this time.)
My take: an overtime loss is still a loss. Though technically, that’s not currently the case.
Top games on tap this week
Note: All times Eastern.
The Capitals are .500 or better against all of their East Division opponents this year — except for the Rangers. The Blueshirts, who are pushing for a playoff spot, have gone 3-2 against the Caps this season. Let’s see if red-hot Alex Ovechkin can help to even things up.
The Blackhawks’ recent struggles have opened the door for the Blue Jackets and Stars to catch up, but also keep the door open for Nashville. This is a crucial stretch for all Central teams. Dallas is playing catch up and needs wins, badly. The Predators are still establishing who they are ahead of the April 12 trade deadline.
This is the second half of a two-game series between two of the top teams in the West Division. They’ve split their four games so far (with one overtime loss for the Wild). Though the Wild have recently welcomed back Matt Dumba and Marcus Johansson, they remain an intriguing team to watch ahead of the trade deadline.
Social media post of the week
RIP Bob Plager, who died this week after he suffered a cardiac event while driving his car, and crashed on Interstate 64 in St. Louis. Plager, an original member of the Blues expansion team, personified what it meant to take pride in the city for which you play.
The Blues’ statement on Plager’s passing ended with this line: “We hope everyone will find strength knowing that Bobby got his parade.” Watch this clip of Plager on the ice after the Blues won the Cup. It will bring you joy.
One of the most emotional moments of the Stanley Cup celebration in Boston was @Frank_Cusumano‘s interview on the ice with Bob Plager.
Like St. Louis, he had waited for that Cup and parade for half a century. Glad he finally got it. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/8phwcIxBTs
— Corey Miller (@corey_miller5) March 24, 2021