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The Fantastic Flower

Golden Knights relying on Fleury to get through NHL playoffs

From the complex and old-school mind of a goalie coach: Dave Prior felt the guy with three Stanley Cup rings, the former No. 1 overall draft pick, the one who arrived to Las Vegas having played 691 NHL games and compiled 375 wins, was underachieving at this stage of his career.

Prior saw beyond the gaudy numbers and impressive resume, focusing instead on attributes he was convinced could draw more from a player most already viewed as Hall of Fame worthy.

He was sure there was another level of greatness behind the mask, that Marc-Andre Fleury had more to him in net even after those 12 memorable seasons in Pittsburgh.

“I can be kind of a confusing coach and approach things a little different than most, but he came to understand it and has exceeded my expectations,” Prior said. “I always knew he had everything I look for in a goalie. I always knew he was special. You want your No. 1 goalie to be durable and capable, the horse who can carry the load for the team. Those are the really valuable guys in the league. He’s one.

“I think he came here with totally good intentions to give the opportunity a chance, but I’m not sure even he would have thought the marriage between him and the organization would have worked out this well. We embraced him and him us. I don’t know if he would have been as excited to continue here if we weren’t a competitive team.”

Turns out, that hasn’t been an issue.

Golden Knights Fleury stats graphic

Goal ‘to win the Cup’

Two years later, the term expansion doesn’t at all fit the Golden Knights, who followed a Stanley Cup Final appearance in their inaugural season by clinching a second consecutive playoff berth and face a best-of-seven series at Pacific Division rival San Jose.

Here’s a popular take: By adding winger Mark Stone at the trade deadline, the Knights now offer the sort of depth along four lines that they lacked in falling to the Capitals in five Stanley Cup Final games.

Here’s a factual one: The Knights will again go as far as Fleury takes them.

He is 34 and yet flirted this season with playing the most minutes of any time during his career, a possibility that ended when the team listed Fleury as day-to-day and started backup Malcolm Subban nine straight games over the final few weeks of March.

Whether he was really nursing an injury or the Knights merely understood their playoff position would ultimately land them as a third-place team and saw it as a way to rest Fleury while his wife was set to deliver their third child (baby James checked in a 9.3 pounds on March 22), the goalie’s ironman season finally included a respite.

Crazy. When the Knights signed Fleury to an extension following last year’s historic run — he is now in the fold through 2021-22 at an average annual salary of $7 million — I viewed it as a move done in haste. An overreaction to what had just transpired, something the Knights didn’t need to do so early, given Fleury was already signed through this season.

Essentially, the team bid against itself while putting its trust in a goalie with past concussion issues and who will be 37 and still under contract.

Essentially, so far, it appears the Knights might have known something everyone else didn’t.

Fleury won’t lead the league in starts or minutes or wins or goals-against average or shutouts or save percentage this season — sitting those nine games late ended any chance of him challenging for the top spot in several categories — but he will rank among the top goalies in all of them.

He logged his most time since 2014-15 and recorded his most shutouts since that same year. This is the eighth season in which he won at least 35 games.

In leading the Knights to a Western Conference title in their first season, Fleury offered some of the finest play by a goalie in playoff history. He then started 43 of the team’s first 50 games and 59 of its first 71 this season, along the way making his second straight All-Star Game and fourth overall.

The concern of those watching: Should he have been playing so much in his 14th NHL season?

Prior’s answer now, looking back: Absolutely. He rewards those who earn it.

“Ever since I have been in the league, my goal each season has been to win the Cup,” Fleury said. “Even now, it’s always the same. I’ve been able to take care of myself and adapt and work hard to be successful and stick around. Nobody has a perfect formula. You get older, but then you just have to be a little wiser and rely on your experience. I played a lot this year but also had a lot of fun.

“It’s tough to win the Cup, but when you have a good team and there is a chance at doing it, you want to make the most of it. I always hoped things would work out here, but you never really know. I was just hoping we could (eventually) battle for a playoff spot. But the organization did such a great job getting the players we have, and the fans have supported us from Day 1.”

Vezina in cards?

The Penguins are overly selective when to comes to retiring jerseys, yet you would expect in the coming years that Fleury has a terrific chance of seeing his No. 29 alongside that of Mario Lemieux and the late Michel Briere and one day Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and perhaps Jaromir Jagr.

Fleury also ranks eighth all-time in wins and could play long enough to end his career in the top three.

He owns one of the highest winning percentages (55.1) in NHL history.

Hall of Fame stuff, all of it.

Heck, given what he has already meant to the Knights and the Las Vegas community, his jersey might one day hang from the rafters in two arenas.

And yet he has never won the Vezina Trophy, annually awarded to the NHL’s top goalie and voted on by general managers. Fleury hasn’t even been listed among the three finalists in a given year, which, given his body of work, is astounding.

“I never really thought about it, but growing older now, I know it is something I haven’t achieved and haven’t really even been nominated for,” he said. “At some point, it would be nice, but at the end of the day, that’s personal stuff. What matters is winning games. That’s all I care about.”

His might not be the loudest voice in the room for the Knights, but nobody comes close to owning the respect of teammates as Fleury. This season was no different as they watched him night after night, game after game, lead them onto the ice and get to places in the crease to save shots that goalies 10 years younger might not reach.

His are not the reactions of a 14-year veteran.

His is not a game that appears to be slowing at all.

“I’ve seen a lot of goalies work in practice, but I’ve never seen one who battled and stays with pucks like he does,” said Knights forward Ryan Reaves. “I mean, every puck. It’s easy for most guys to make a save in practice and then get ready for the (next shot) during a drill, but he won’t even let someone shove in rebounds. He plays every puck out until it’s over.

“That work ethic is what makes him so good. It’s the best I have ever seen from any goalie. When you have a goalie like him, any team will be competitive. He can steal games by himself. Having someone like him in net just exudes confidence from everyone else up and down the lineup.”

Look at that. Prior was right. There was a lot more behind the mask.

Two years later, Marc-Andre Fleury remains, to these Knights, their homme de fer.

Their ironman.

More Golden Knights: Follow at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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