‘Flower’ blossoms: Fleury back to being great playoff goalie

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Anyone who has played with Marc-Andre Fleury can tell he’s dialed in by watching his mannerisms.

Last year, he rubbed the shaft of his stick after making a save with it on Alex Ovechkin. This year, he continued a career-long tradition of rubbing the post as a sign of appreciation for keeping a puck out.

”That’s when you know he’s in the zone,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.

Fleury is in one of the best zones of his career in the playoffs with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have followed up a magical inaugural season with a trip to the Western Conference final. The goaltending of Fleury is the biggest reason they’ve gotten this far and is a continuation of his remarkable playoff reputation rehabilitation.

After taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and winning it all in 2009, Fleury lost four of the next five series he played and each postseason posted a save percentage under .900. He has since gotten his groove back, helping the Penguins win the Cup again a year ago, and now leads the NHL playoffs with a 1.53 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts.

”I don’t think it was anything physically that he changed,” former Penguins teammate and current Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It was all confidence-driven. He’s always been a guy who’s really competitive and really loose at the same time. I think it was just confidence. I think he needed a fresh start. Maybe he just needed a clean slate, and you perform better when you’re more appreciated.”

It’s impossible not to appreciate the impact ”Flower” has made in the desert as the face of a new franchise as he went 29-13-4 with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pacific Division-winning Vegas. The fresh start might have rejuvenated Fleury more than a decade into his career, but his bounce-back in becoming a great playoff goalie again is six years in the making.

The low point came in 2012. Fleury allowed 26 goals over six games to Philadelphia in a first-round exit. The next playoffs, backup Tomas Vokoun started more games, and it was fair to wonder if Fleury had lost it.

”You learn from losing,” Fleury said Wednesday. ”You learn from tough times and pressure and stuff like that. It made me a better goalie from it.”

Now-Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was there for some of the struggles but didn’t level them all on Fleury. By 2014, he noticed a different goalie.

”There was a period of time there where maybe (it was) not entirely his fault, a few things went wrong and it snowballed on him and he had a tough go there, I think, mentally for a couple springs,” Niskanen said. ”But by the time of my last year there he was really good again.”

The scars of another second-round exit led to more blame for Fleury, who was scapegoated for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not doing more after the Cup in 2009.

”Sometimes it’s the way your team plays in front of you,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who beat Fleury with the Rangers in playoff series in 2014 and 2015. ”Sometimes, like any other player, you might have a bad series or a bad playoffs and I think for a goalie if you have that, people are going to be all over you.”

Following a forgettable first-round loss to Hagelin and the Rangers in 2015, Fleury had one of his best regular seasons. But he was nevertheless replaced as Pittsburgh’s playoff starter by Matt Murray on the way to the Cup in 2016.

Before he played a substantial role in the Penguins’ second consecutive title run, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Vegas in the expansion draft. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose 2009 Capitals lost to Fleury in the second round, said Dave Prior was insistent on adding Fleury because the veteran goaltending coach felt there was more improvement to be made in his game.

”He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. ”He was excited and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been. We like the calming effect he has on this team. When he plays, he’s really good when you need him the most. Needless to say you don’t get to the third round in this league unless you got a goaltender that’s playing well.”

Fleury will be playing in the third round for the fifth time in his career, a testament to the 33-year-old’s willingness to adjust as he has gotten older, including eating the right food, training meticulously and allowing his body to recover.

”When you’re young, you eat whatever, you never hurt, I never stretched, I could do the splits, it was easier,” Fleury said. ”Now I got to do more to maintain that flexibility and comfortness in the net. The older you get, things tend to linger around longer and you got to find ways to feel loose and feel good when games come around.”

Players are rarely worried about Fleury being tight. Even when Murray took his starting job, Fleury didn’t let it affect his mood at the rink.

”For him it definitely wasn’t easy because I’m sure he knew how he good he is and everybody else knew how good he is,” Maatta said. ”He still kind of kept showing up smiling and being an awesome teammate all the time even though he was probably in a tough spot.”

The laughs during the bad times have endeared Fleury to teammates who watch his playoff success with Vegas with great joy.

”Cares about the group, has fun at the rink, competitive as heck, cares about the right things,” Niskanen said. ”It’s not surprising at all that he’s done as well as he has there. It’s surprising how well the team has done but not him specifically. He’s a really good goalie and a perfect fit for them.”

Freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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WATCH LIVE: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Sunday as the Washington Capitals visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly
Chandler StephensonJay Beagle – Brett Conolly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJakub Jerabek

Starting goalie: Philip Grubauer

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

[Ovechkin, a durable ‘Russian machine,’ reaches 1,000 games]

WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

PENGUINS
Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyBryan Rust
Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel (game time decision)
Conor ShearyRiley SheahanPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseJosh JoorisTom Kuhnhackl

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJustin Schultz
Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE]

PROJECTED LINES

Philadephia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan Patrick – Jake Voracek

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton – Matt Read

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis Sanheim – Andrew MacDonald

Robert Hägg – Radko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Alex Lyon

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Forwards

Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyPatric Hornqvist

Carl HagelinEvgeni Malkin– Bryab Rust

Conor ShearyDerick BrassardPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanDominik Simon

Defense

Jamie OleksiakKris Letang

Brian DumoulinJustin Schultz

Olli MaattaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

PROJECTED LINES

Pittsburgh Penguins
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Conor Sheary
Carl Hagelin – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Bryan Rust – Derick Brassard – Phil Kessel
Tom Kuhnhackl – Riley Sheahan – Carter Rowney

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Jamie OleksiakJustin Schultz
Olli Maatta – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[PHT’s preview]

Montreal Canadiens
Paul ByronJonathan DrouinBrendan Gallagher
Alex GalchenyukJacob De La RoseArtturi Lehkonen
Charles HudonLogan Shaw – Nikita Scherbak
Nicolas DeslauriersByron Froese/Michael McCarron – Daniel Carr

Mike ReillyJeff Petry
Karl AlznerNoah Juulsen
Jordie Benn – Brett Lernout

Starting goalie: Antti Niemi

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins at Rangers – Wednesday Night Rivalry

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Pittsburgh Penguins

Jake Guentzel/Sidney Crosby/Conor Sheary

Carl Hagelin/Evgeni Malkin/Patric Hornqvist

Bryan Rust/Derick Brassard/Phil Kessel

Tom Kuhnhackl/Riley Sheahan/Carter Rowney

Brian Dumoulin/Kris Letang

Jamie Oleksiak/Justin Schultz

Olli Maatta/Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

[PHT’s preview for Penguins – Rangers.]

New York Rangers

Chris Kreider/Mika Zibanejad/Jesper Fast

Ryan Spooner/Kevin Hayes/Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey/Vladislav Namestnikov/Pavel Buchnevich

Cody McLeod/David Desharnais/Paul Carey

Marc Staal/Neal Pionk

Brady Skjei/Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour/Rob O'Gara

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev