LAS VEGAS — In a past year, in the kind of game the Washington Capitals have tried to wipe from their collective brain, Marc-Andre Fleury would morph into a blur, slide from one post to the other, send ice shavings into the air and somehow stop pucks destined for the back of the net.
But the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender, who once haunted the Capitals as a Pittsburgh Penguin, did not deliver those momentum-stealing saves in T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday night. A 3-2 win for the Capitals evened the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals at one game apiece, and Fleury and the Golden Knights’ defense were just not quite as stingy as Braden Holtby and the Capitals’ blue line.
Fleury has been the best goaltender of the postseason and made few mistakes on his way to 23 saves in the loss. But in a contest much tighter than his 6-4 win in Game 1, the Golden Knights needed Fleury to steal the result with the acrobatic stops that have highlighted their playoff run. He did not — instead watching Holtby make those types of saves on the other end of the ice — and that wasn’t a development to which the Capitals are accustomed.
“It’s been all right. I’m not too worried or anything like that,” Fleury said of his play so far this series. “We lost, you know? It sucks. But put it behind and keep moving.”
Two days removed from one of his worst statistical outings of the postseason and seven hours before the puck dropped for Game 2, Fleury took the ice at the Golden Knights’ suburban practice facility. He did not have on goalie pads or carry his goalie stick and instead wore shorts, a hooded sweatshirt and a black Golden Knights baseball cap as he danced around the rink and fired shots at an empty net.
He did this for close to 20 minutes until he had the ice all to himself, and hundreds of fans tracked him with their phone cameras. When he ducked into the tunnel, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Then the fans finally went home, hoping Fleury’s light, lone skate loosened him up ahead of the next biggest start of his season.
“He has a way of staying calm no matter the situation,” Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland said Wednesday morning of Fleury’s ability to lock in after a down performance. “I think he’s being harder on himself than he should be [after Game 1], you know, two deflection goals and two basically backdoor tap-ins. We got to do a better job taking away those opportunities.”
But it was more of the same in front of Fleury on Wednesday, as the Capitals’ first two goals came off backdoor passes. In the first period, Lars Eller buried a pass from Michal Kempny on Fleury’s weak side. When the pass zipped from Kempny’s stick to Eller’s, Fleury was more than a foot outside the crease and watched over his left shoulder as Eller scored. On a power play at the start of the second, Alex Ovechkin finished a cross-zone assist from Eller before Fleury could get to the far post.
Fleury has been the Golden Knights’ backbone these playoffs — with a 13-3 record, .942 save percentage and four shutouts heading into Game 2 — but he has cracked at times. He was a human wall in a first-round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings, allowing just three total goals in four wins, then twice gave up four against the San Jose Sharks in the second round. He was again sharp in the Western conference finals against the Winnipeg Jets, allowing six total goals in four victories but now has let in seven in two contests against the Capitals.
Now the series shifts back to Washington, where Fleury’s previous playoff start there was one of those nights, a shutout of the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring. Fleury hopes to soon add more pained memories to the Capitals’ playoff psyche.
“Game 1, 2, 3, 4, it doesn’t matter what it is. You want to win them all,” Fleury said. “Obviously it was a little tight than we wanted it to be, but it’s fine. We didn’t think it was going to be easy.”
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