Three more shots later, the Penguins had survived to take a one-game-to-none lead in a series between the regular season’s two top teams.
After the game, Fleury’s smile stretched out widest as he described the win and its frantic final moments.
“Yeah, it’s been good,” Fleury, 32, said of his playoff success so far, which also included a five-game win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. “I’ve tried to enjoy every game, one by one, and tried to enjoy the moment. And it’s always more fun when you win.”
Fleury’s postseason has been significantly more fun than his last one. Last season, he was knocked out of the lineup by a concussion in late March. He lost his starting job to Matt Murray, 10 years his junior. Murray then led the Penguins to their fourth Stanley Cup, and while Fleury had his name etched onto the trophy for the second time, his future in Pittsburgh appeared shaky.
Fleury has factored heavily into speculation about the coming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights, who enter the league next season. He was also frequently mentioned as a likely mover in the lead-up to the March 1 trade deadline.
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“We’ll just have to see how that plays out,” Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January. “It becomes more difficult as the season goes along for the coach to keep both guys happy.”
The deadline passed without incident, however, and standing pat has proved prudent. Murray suddenly tweaked a lower-body injury during warm-ups for Game 1 against Columbus on April 12. He has not yet resumed skating, but the Penguins have had little reason to fret over the loss of their top goaltender. Fleury’s .934 save percentage through six games is the best playoff mark of his career, and far better than his .909 average in the regular season.
Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said he admired how Fleury had handled the “difficult” goaltending decisions often not made in his favor.
“I think Marc deserves so much credit for his professionalism and for his selfless approach,” Sullivan said hours before Thursday’s game. “He’s a true teammate, and he puts the team ahead of himself in a lot of ways. We couldn’t be happier for how well he’s playing for us now, and the difference that he’s made in helping this team continue to win games.”
After the Game 1 victory, defenseman Ian Cole was equally effusive about how Fleury has soared after coming off the bench.
“He’s a world-class goaltender — he’s shown that for so many years now,” Cole said. “His ability to step up when the stakes are at their highest, it’s huge. It’s so clutch. We’re very proud of him — maybe that’s the way to describe it. We’re very excited. Enough can’t be said for how professional and how good of a goaltender he is.”
Murray had been the Penguins’ goalie in their six-game series victory over the Capitals in the second round of last year’s playoffs. Several Capitals players have said there was little difference between facing Murray or facing Fleury, who had his own triumph over Washington in the 2009 playoffs.
“He’s just obviously a great goaltender, and a veteran guy who knows how to battle,” Capitals forward Jay Beagle said of Fleury. “He’s a little bit smaller than Murray, so there’s that in the differences, but other than that a goalie is a goalie. You’ve got to make sure you’re getting pucks on him and taking his eyes away and making it hard on him. He made some incredible saves last night, and we’ve just got to keep pounding the rock at him.”
Although Fleury was the Penguins’ starter in their Stanley Cup run in 2009, postseason reliability has not been his strength. The first overall pick in the 2003 N.H.L. draft, Fleury has frequently been a scapegoat for Pittsburgh’s disappointing early eliminations, most notably a six-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 in which he posted a woeful .834 save percentage and 4.63 goals against average.
Fleury said his past struggles and setbacks had made him appreciate these recent successes more.
“Maybe a little bit, yeah,” he said. “You never know what’s waiting for you in the afterworld. I’m fortunate to be playing on a good team. And winning some games, it’s a lot of fun.”