LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury spent part of Sunday’s Stanley Cup media day narrating the postseason path of his upcoming opponent because perhaps no other player better knows the kinds of demons the Washington Capitals had failed to slay over the years. Fleury had provided some of that agony as the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender, but he has noticed a transformation in his former rivals during their breakthrough run in these playoffs.
So he cleared his throat and began to describe what he had seen over the past two months. “I think they look good. I think they look probably [like] the best in the playoffs that I’ve seen,” Fleury began before diving into each of Washington’s three series wins in the Eastern Conference playoffs, all of which purged a dark part of its past.
In the first round, it was overcoming an 0-2 deficit against Columbus and its fiery coach, John Tortorella, who had stirred up so much playoff tension with Washington over the years with the New York Rangers, another franchise that has haunted the Capitals in recent springs.
In the quarterfinals, it was beating the Penguins, who with Fleury’s help last season had extended the Capitals’ series record against their rivals to 1-9. And in the conference finals, it was beating the loaded Tampa Bay Lightning, which featured a litany of players who formerly played for the Rangers, in a Game 7.
But Fleury is the final figure from the Capitals’ beleaguered playoff history they must solve in their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in two decades. And he might be the most formidable. Fleury has been far and away the best goaltender during the postseason, in which he carries a 12-3 record with a .947 save percentage and an absurd 1.68 goals against average. But Fleury also has brought a set of intangibles that may help explain the inexplicable run by the Golden Knights, who decided before the season not to name a captain.
“I think it’s been enormous for the team,” Vegas General Manager George McPhee said. “He is one of the finest people you’ll meet in this game. He’s brought tremendous leadership to our group, brought experience, needless to say, not only as a real good starter but as a guy who’s had success in the playoffs.”
Fleury is one of the only players on his roster to appear in the Stanley Cup finals before this season, but this time it feels different. After years of serving as part of the bedrock on Pittsburgh’s roster, helping the Penguins capture three Stanley Cups, he was cast off last offseason for the younger Matt Murray. The Capitals exposed Murray, just as they poked holes in two of the league’s better goaltenders in Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. But while Fleury looks like a completely different animal at this point, he also acknowledged that the Capitals might be as well.
“I think they still have that same offensive skill, and they can really score goals,” said Fleury, who won 22 games against the Capitals in the regular season as a member of the Penguins and captured two seven-game playoff series wins. “So that’s something you obviously have to be aware of. I don’t think they were that far away the last few years. They always had good teams. It will be a challenge, for sure.”
The challenge has much to do with Washington captain Alex Ovechkin, who has been cranking 100-mph slap shots at Fleury for years.
“It’s one of the best shots in the league,” Fleury said with a smile Sunday, perhaps flashing back to the moment he stopped what appeared to be a surefire goal by Ovechkin with the shaft of his stick in the Penguins’ Game 7 win over the Capitals in the second round last year. That was the kind of play that defined the divergent path of the veterans over the years. Now they cross again in the most unexpected of ways.
“He’s a great goalie. He knows how to win,” Ovechkin said of Fleury. “It’s always challenging to play against the best.”
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