After their overtime win in San Jose on Monday night, the Vegas Golden Knights are just two wins away from reaching the Western Conference Final. The win was aided, in large part, by another spectacular performance from starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury as he held off an early Sharks onslaught, stopped 39 out of 42 shots on the night, and made one of the best saves of the playoffs when he absolutely robbed Logan Couture with this stunning glove save in overtime.
For Fleury, it was his latest great performance in a playoff run that has the makings of being one of the best of his career. He already has three shutouts in seven games, has allowed only 10 goals, and has already stopped at least 35 shots in a game three different times.
When Vegas went into the expansion draft process and began building its roster from scratch it was pretty obvious that it was going to end up getting a legitimate No. 1 goalie with its selection from Pittsburgh. It was also pretty obvious that given the ages, contract situations, and long-term outlook for both players that the Penguins were going to try and direct Fleury Vegas’ way, preferring to keep the younger, cheaper and back-to-back Stanley Cup winning Matt Murray. Almost immediately Fleury became the face of the NHL’s newest team and was expected to, at the very least, give it a chance to compete on most nights. But along with everything else unfolding with the Golden Knights this season there probably wasn’t anybody that expected him to be this good.
Quite simply, Fleury is playing the absolute best hockey of his career right now.
Fleury’s career arc is a strange one to look back on because it’s had a little bit of everything over the past 15 years. Potential. Hope. Success. Devastating lows. Redemption. And then a new beginning where hope and potential were again focal point.
When it all began, he was an 18-year-old rookie — the rare goalie to go No. 1 overall in the draft — that was supposed to be a foundational piece for what was a bad, rebuilding team. Early in his career he delivered on that potential by helping to backstop the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter.
After that, however, things kind of fell apart for him in a series of playoff meltdowns between 2010 and 2014 that helped torpedo some potential lengthy playoff runs in Pittsburgh and make him more of a league-wide joke than anything else. It wasn’t all because of his play, but his play was a big a part of it. Between 2010 and 2015, his .895 postseason save percentage was 20th out of 22 goalies that appeared in at least 20 games, finishing ahead of only Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov. At one point he lost his starting job in the playoffs to Tomas Vokoun. But after a change in goalie coaches and work with a sports psychologist, his playoff performances — as well as his regular season performances — in recent years started to improve. Even then things had a way of working against him.
An injury at the end of the 2015-16 season cost him his starting job as Murray stepped in and played brilliantly on his way to a Stanley Cup. In 2016-17, he had a chance for redemption when the situation was reversed and an injury to Murray — who had taken over as the team’s starter — allowed Fleury to regain his starting job through the first two rounds where he was probably the biggest reason the Penguins were able to continue advancing. It was pretty much the exact opposite of the previous five playoff runs in Pittsburgh where the goaltending was sinking what was often times an otherwise good team.
Murray eventually returned, regained his starting spot, and closed out the final two rounds on the way to another Stanley Cup. His career in Pittsburgh ended with him handing the Stanley Cup to the guy that replaced him.
And with that, a new beginning in Vegas waiting for him where he would again be a foundational cornerstone for what was supposed to be, for now, a bad, building team. In this case, he was quite literally, one of the first pieces of the team. At first, the success or failure of Vegas in the first few years of its existence always seemed like it was going to hinge on Fleury’s ability to carry an expansion team that would be short on talent. That is, of course, until we realized just how badly many of the NHL’s other general managers were going to screw up the expansion draft process and help build an immediate powerhouse. But even with Vegas having far more firepower offensively — and a shockingly better blue line — than anybody could have reasonable expected Fleury has still be a significant part of the success.
Even though he has been a part of three Stanley Cup winning teams, I’ve always argued that the best hockey of his career before this season came during the 2007-08 season, the year the Penguins actually lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Detroit. Without him, that team probably wouldn’t have sniffed the Final that season and given the way that series was played on the ice it was something of a small miracle that they actually won two games in the series (they were outshot 222-142 and the only game they topped 25 shots on goal was a triple overtime game … where they were outshot 58-34. It was a one-sided series).
That was always the best hockey he ever played.
Until this season.
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First, the numbers are not only among the best in the league, they are also the best of his career. During the regular season he finished with a .927 save percentage that was fourth among all NHL goalies that appeared in at least 30 games. His even-strength percentage of .931 was sixth in the league. He has never finished higher in either category in any previous season.
He has continued that play into the playoffs.
When you combine his regular season and playoff numbers — as of Tuesday — he is currently sporting a .932 save percentage in his first 51 games this season. That includes seven shutouts.
Just looking back at his career he has never had a season where his total numbers (regular season and playoffs) were this good. The only year that comes close was the aforementioned 2007-08 season.
Here are his five best.
Again, outside of that 2007-08 performance there really isn’t another one on his resume that compares to this one.
On one hand you could point to this season, and especially that .960 postseason save percentage, and accurately point out that it is an unsustainable level of production. An incredible hot streak that will at some point end with an ugly regression to the mean. You would not be wrong to argue that. It will happen eventually. But even if he regresses a bit you can not take away the fact that he has re-written his postseason story in recent years. Since he was benched for Vokoun in the first-round of the 2013 playoffs, his postseason save percentage has been the third-best in the NHL over that stretch. This is not just a one-year thing for him.
You also can not take away what has already happened. He still had to stop those pucks this year and this postseason. He has stopped them better than just about any goalie in the league this season and better than he ever has in his career.
The fact it is happening this season, on this team, in this situation, only adds to it. If he backstops an expansion team anywhere near the Stanley Cup Final — and they absolutely could get there, and they absolutely could win it — there will not be anything in his career that matches it.