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Why Pittsburgh loves Marc-Andre Fleury

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Let me start by asking you a question.

What makes your favorite player, your favorite player?

Why do you like them?

Is it the way the play, what they accomplished, a specific moment, something they did off the ice, a personal interaction you had with them? What was it?

There has to be something that drew you to that player.

The reason I bombard you with all of these questions is because on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh Marc-Andre Fleury will be making his first appearance in the city as a visiting player. It is going to be some kind of a wild scene because in the history of the Penguins — heck, in the history of Pittsburgh sports — there are few players that will ever reach the level of popularity that Fleury had among a large portion of the city.

A lot of players — important players, good players — that were a part of Stanley Cup winning teams have returned to Pittsburgh as visitors and received a wide range of receptions. Jaromir Jagr, a legend, spent years being booed every time he touched the puck. Most players get a nice round of applause. Some get standing ovations.

None of them will compare to the one Fleury gets on Tuesday night when the roof will probably blow off the building. There will almost certainly be a non-zero number of people in the stands wearing Penguins jerseys that are actively cheering for a player in the opposing colors to win.

That relationship always fascinated me, and it still does.

Looking at his career as a player objectively there is nothing that really stands out all that much versus any other goalie from his era.

Do not get me wrong, he certainly was not a bad player, and he was always extremely durable. A goalie that could play 65-70 games a year at a — at worst — league average level is a pretty valuable commodity.

But he was never the best — or even second best — player on his own team, and he was never really among the top players in the league at his position.

The league’s general managers never saw fit to vote him higher than seventh for the Vezina Trophy (and only twice voted for him at all). He played in two All-Star games in 13 years and only finished higher than 10th in save percentage once. He had some downright forgettable postseason performances that probably at times made him a detriment to the team’s Stanley Cup chances. Twice he was replaced by other goalies, and while he is a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, he wasn’t the goalie in the crease for the clinching game for two of them and didn’t even play a role in the playoffs for one of them.

This isn’t meant to be critical, it’s just facts.

Still, if you were to poll Penguins fans on who their favorite player over the past decade has been a significant portion of them is going to have Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of that list. He is going to get a heroes welcome.

So again, we’re back to the question of why he is so fiercely loved.

A lot of comes from the fact that anyone that has had any significant interaction with him has never had a negative thing to say about him. Hearing his former teammates talk about him and tell stories about him shows how much reverence they have for him as a player and a person.

That carries over to the fan base because they hear things like this from Ian Cole.

How would you not want to root for a player like that?

Even though he is a highly competitive person behind the scenes, on the ice and on camera he always has that same smile on his face and just seems to be genuinely happy to be there, never taking things too seriously. It is easy for fans to root for a person like that. When Fleury was on his way out of Pittsburgh this past summer having been sent to Vegas as part of the expansion draft, Sean Gentille wrote at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “this would all be easier if he were a jerk. People would be more rational, if nothing else.”

But he was not — and is not — a jerk.

He also is not boring.

His style of play is just … exciting. Not always the most effective, but never boring. A fundamentally sound goalie that always has himself in position to have the puck hit him in the chest isn’t going to appeal to people. It isn’t going to make highlights. Fleury has never been that goalie. He has always relied on freakish athleticism to play the position and has always been capable of making mind-melting saves.

When his career comes to an end he is going to have a lot of great numbers when it comes to wins, championships, saves. It is going to be one of those very good for a very long time careers, instead of one that was dominated by objective greatness over any number of seasons. Or even individual seasons.

But he still had his moments of greatness, and they tended to be HUGE moments.

There was that breakaway save on Alex Ovechkin early in Game 7 of the 2009 playoffs. There was the Stanley Cup clinching save on Nicklas Lidstrom later that spring. The best stretch of play in his career is probably largely forgotten because it didn’t result in a Stanley Cup win, but his performance during the 2007-08 postseason was game-changing, and it would have made him a worthy Conn Smythe contender had the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings that year. As it stands, he was the only reason they won two games in that series against a team that steamrolled them in all six games. With his team facing elimination in a Stanley Cup Final game he stopped 55 shots in a triple-overtime win.

Then there was the 2017 playoffs when he briefly got his job back from Matt Murray and helped propel the team through the first two rounds of the playoffs despite the fact they were probably outplayed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.

That stuff sticks with fans, too.

Then there is the hope he provided.

When the Penguins traded up two spots to select Fleury with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft things were not great for the organization. It was a bad team that had sold off all of its best players for pennies on the dollar, while the future of the team was still very much in doubt.

Fleury was supposed to be the beginning of a new era, and for an entire generation of fans he was the first core building block for what would become a championship level team. He was there before Sidney Crosby. Before Evgeni Malkin. Before Kris Letang. They threw him right into the deep end of the pool, making him their starting goalie on opening night as an 18-year-old, something that is still unheard of today.

He showed up in bright yellow pads and played behind a team that was so unspeakably awful they got outshot by a completely mediocre Kings team (one that missed the playoffs!) by a 48-11 margin on opening night. Fleury, the 18-year-old, stopped 46 of those shots, including a penalty shot. In his next start a week later he stopped 31 shots to beat a Red Wings team that would go on to be one of the best in the league that season for his first career win.

That stands out with fans, the fact he was the beginning of a new era that would probably become the most successful era in franchise history (and from a championship standpoint, it has been).

Was he ever a great player for the Penguins? If we define greatness as being the best on the team or one of the best at his position, the honest answer is no, probably not.

But he was a great person and a great teammate. He was a great ambassador for the team and the league. He provided great hope at a time when there was no hope for the team. He had great moments that led to great success for the team.

That stuff all adds up over 13 years, and sometimes in the eyes of fans it is all worth more than just simply being a great player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL on NBCSN: Rangers look to continue to build off Quinn’s challenge

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Well, that was one way to respond.

After a postgame tongue lashing through the media following Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, David Quinn’s team responded with a 6-2 victory on Tuesday. 

The stars maybe aligned for that New York Rangers win when you considered the motivation they had after getting publicly called out by their head coach, plus the fact that the Carolina Hurricanes hadn’t won at Madison Square Garden in 15 tries (before Tuesday), dating back to Jan. 5, 2011.

“I think we had played three good games before the debacle in Columbus,” Quinn said after the win. “I think we built off that and moved past what happened in Columbus. Guys took ownership of it and righted a wrong.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

All that changed against the Hurricanes as the Rangers came out and scored 76 seconds into the game and would score twice more in the first period for a solid start. Any time a team has a horrible game, there’s a desire to get right back out there to fix what went wrong. New York only had to wait 48 hours.

“Thank God we had a game this quickly after that one, get a chance to redeem ourselves,” said forward Mika Zibanejad. “We knew what we had to do. We talked about it. The way we play and the system we have, we didn’t really have that against Columbus. I thought we did a better job with that, and it showed.”

With games against Chicago and Boston before a break consisting of their bye week and the All-Star break, building off that rebound win will be at the top of their minds. Playoffs aren’t in the plans for this season, but strides taken by some of their younger players is what general manager Jeff Gorton will want to see. With a little over a month until the Feb. 25 trade deadline, there are a good number of decisions still to be made. Every game from here on out is an evaluation.

John Walton (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher will have the call from Madison Square Garden.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Off the Ice: Brad Marchand makes cannoli, explains licking opponents

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This week’s edition of Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen featured Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. The two headed to Mike’s Pastry in Boston to make some cannoli and talk about his career.

The topic of licking opponents came up and Marchand explained why he took a taste of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan‘s face during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“His visor was in my face and I was like ‘this will probably piss him off,’ so I tried to do it, tried to get him to hit me and draw a penalty and it kind of went the other way,” he said. “Yeah, that was definitely a decision that [you] go back in time and you would play out a little differently.”

Check out the episode above as Tappen and Marchand also talk about where his edge on the ice comes from and his penchant for pranks. Episodes will premiere exclusively on NBCSports.com/OffTheIce and YouTube each week.

Previous Off the Ice episodes:
Duncan Keith
Mika Zibanejad

Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen takes viewers away from the rink and behind the scenes with some of the NHL’s most intriguing players, as they share their personal lives and unique hobbies with NBC Sports’ Emmy Award-Winning host and sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Stars make a wish come true; price for Nyquist, Howard

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Mike McKenna has made Gritty a part of his new mask with the Philadelphia Flyers.

• The Tampa Bay Lightning are on course for a deep playoff run if they can stay out of their own way. [The Score]

• Want to trade for Gustav Nyquist or Jimmy Howard? You better be willing to fork over at least a first-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings. [MLive]

• Columbus Blue Jackets fans will have to soon come to the realization that life without Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky is coming. [Columbus Dispatch]

• The St. Louis Blues have underachieved all season long, yet they’re still in the Western Conference playoff picture. [St. Louis Dispatch]

• Life as an Edmonton Oilers fan: “Every day, fans live in fear Chiarelli might trade away another Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, etc. for a lesser talent. Ever day, Edmonton fears he might trade away a developing talent or high draft picks, as was the case involving Griffin Reinhardt.” [Edmonton Sun]

• There’s still plenty of season left, but the Montreal Canadiens are showing growth. [Habs Eyes on the Prize]

• This is definitely the low point of Phil Housley’s tenure with the Buffalo Sabres. [Die by the Blade]

• How David Rittich has helped save the Calgary Flames’ season. [ESPN]

• A look at the Flames’ salary cap situation as the trade deadline approaches. [Flames Nation]

• Examining these New York Islanders through 45 games. [Lighthouse Hockey]

• The Islanders penalty kill looks to be turning a corner. [Islanders Insight]

• Finally, the Dallas Stars and the Make-A-Wish Foundation teamed up to make 10-year-old Anderson McDuffie’s dream come true. Anderson, who was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease after being born and has undergone two open-heart surgeries, was part of a team that played against Stars players. [Stars]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Couturier’s first hatty; Duchene sticks it to Avalanche

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Three stars

1. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Couts, as some call him, notched his first career hat trick in a 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey. Obviously, that’s a great feat for him, but he also helped the Flyers win consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 20, so it was also good for the team that has been mostly in nose-dive mode this year.

Couturier has 19 goals now on the season. A special mention here goes to Carter Hart, the Flyers netminder, who stood tall, stopping 39-of-42 sent his way in a game where the Flyers were outshot 42-19.

Priority No. 1 in Philly is making sure Hart gets some help going forward.

2. Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators

Duchene stuck it to his old team in a 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche.

The 28-year-old, who the Senators badly need to re-sign, scored twice in the game put it out of reach and added an assist on the game-winner.

Duchene has 20 goals on the year now, the seventh time he’s done that in his 10-year NHL career.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres needed this one.

Stuck in a three-game slide, the Sabres were quickly falling down the Eastern Conference standings. And having to play the Calgary Flames, with five straight victories heading into Wednesday — and on the road to boot — wasn’t an easy task.

But Eichel scored with 1:10 into overtime to give the Sabres a much-needed win. The Sabres captain has 16 goals on the year now and 51 points after adding a third-period assist on rookie Rasmus Dahlin‘s fifth.

Highlights of the night

Couturier made the hats fly in Philly:

No panic in Panik:

Get over here!

Ullmark’d:

Chabot threads that needle:

Factoids

Scores

Senators 5, Avalanche 2
Flyers 4, Bruins 3
Sabres 4, Flames 3 (OT)
Oilers 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
Coyotes 6, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck