PITTSBURGH — Marc-Andre Fleury has had almost eight months to prepare for what is going to be an emotional night. And he’s still not sure how he’s going to handle it.
Fleury, who won three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins and endeared himself to Western Pennsylvania with his charity work, returns to PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday against his former team. He returns wearing a Golden Knights’ sweater, dressing in the visitors’ locker room and tending the goal opposite where he stood for the Penguins for 13 seasons. He remains a beloved figure in Pittsburgh’s sports culture.
“It’s definitely weird,” Fleury said Monday as he held court with media. “I want to win the game, but I don’t want to block everything out either. It’s my first game back here. I want to enjoy the moment.
“It’s the first time I’ve been through it and I don’t think there’s anything that prepares you for it.”
Fleury’s wife Veronique, their two daughters, his parents and his sister will be in attendance. He’ll receive his 2017 Stanley Cup championship ring at the Knights’ morning skate from Penguins team president Mario Lemieux. There will also be a video tribute to Fleury prior to the game that figures to be emotional.
“I have had such great support here over the years,” Fleury said. “Through the good and through the bad. The people have always been very supportive of me, always cheering me on. So I think it will be fun.”
Fleury was front page news in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. He spent nearly 20 minutes answering questions after practice to a throng of local and national media. He said he misses his Pittsburgh friends, is grateful for the opportunity the Knights have given him and he’s excited about what they’ve accomplished to date with an NHL expansion record 35 wins and 74 points.
“It was my home for so long, from the neighbors to the restaurants,” Fleury said of Pittsburgh. “It brings back memories over the years, fun times.”
Coach Gerard Gallant said the team understands the emotion surrounding Fleury’s return, much like the Knights did Dec. 14 when they defeated the Penguins 2-1 at T-Mobile Arena.
“Marc’s a true pro,” Gallant said. “I’m sure it’s going to be emotional for him, but he played here a long time. He’s got three Stanley Cup championships. He’s got a lot of friends here. So it’ll be a lot of fun.
“It’s another game for us, but for Marc it’s a big game.”
Gallant said despite missing 25 games with a concussion, Fleury has been a big part of the team’s success.
“He’s a leader. He’s a great goaltender and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in right now,” Gallant said.
“I’m sure it’ll be weird for him,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Monday. “But he’s going to get a great ovation and once you get into the game, you get competitive and you have fun with it and try to put the puck past him.
“There’s always motivation when you play against friends and former teammates. Especially in the position we’re in and what happened there. We want to make sure we find a way to win this one.”
1. Fleury’s not alone. Marc-Andre Fleury is not the only former Penguin returning to Pittsburgh. James Neal, David Perron and Deryk Engelland all played for the Pens. The difference? They’ve been back to Pittsburgh before. For Fleury, it’s his first time.
2. Gallant’s line juggling. Will Carrier is out with an upper-body injury and that means Brendan Leipsic is back in. Will coach Gerard Gallant keep Alex Tuch with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Carpenter after the trio combined for two goals and three assists vs. Washington? Or does he move Oscar Lindberg back and have Tuch play with Leipsic and Cody Eakin on what has been an offensively ineffective third line of late?
3. Penguins in battle. The Penguins would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. But they are in a battle in the Metropolitan Division, leading Columbus by just three points for the third spot in the Metro.