Marc-André Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights has successfully scaled the mountaintop of becoming a Stanley Cup Champion three times before. As a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has three Stanley Cups to his name, including the past two seasons. However, during last season’s playoff run, Matt Murray’s clutch play for a second straight championship run helped set the wheels in motion that would lead to Fleury’s trade to Vegas on the night of the team’s expansion draft. On a team that was supposed to be somewhere near the bottom of the standings, the likely Jack Adams Award favorite, Gerard Gallant, took a team of “spare parts” and created a finely tuned machine, with Fleury serving as its engine. The Golden Knights do not currently have a captain, but “Flower” has been a veteran source of strength for the team all season, as many of the supposed castoffs on the roster have gelled together to have career-best years.
Despite playing 46 games this season in part due to injury, as opposed to prior years where topping 60 games was his norm, Fleury was lights out during the regular season. Among goalies who played in at least 40 games, Fleury was tied for the best goals against average (2.24), placed second in save percentage (.927), and still managed to ultimately win 29 of his 46 games. His goals against average and save percentage both saw him finish ahead of goalies such as John Gibson, Connor Hellebuyck, Jonathan Quick, and Sergei Bobrovsky. Where the regular season is concerned, his counterpart on the Washington Capitals, Braden Holtby, had a 2.99 goals against average, and a .907 save percentage in 54 games. Both goalies have stepped it up considerably in the playoffs, however.
While Holtby’s playoff stats have been much improved, with a 2.04 goals against average and a .924 save percentage, Fleury is playing on a superhuman level that was not always seen as a guarantee. In the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins drew the Philadelphia Flyers in their first round matchup. Fleury was routinely lit up during that series with an abominable 4.63 goals against average and a .834 save percentage, which reads like numbers you see in a video game set to easy. While his playoff numbers steadily got back to stronger levels since that series, the stigma of that series followed him with a small section of fans, who would wonder if Fleury may have been a flash in the pan, and not truly a clutch goalie, despite his future NHL All-Star appearances and improving playoff numbers when healthy. Leading up the Stanley Cup Final, Fleury boasts an outstanding 1.68 goals against average, four shutouts, and a .947 save percentage. If Fleury maintains this level of play, he should be the considered the favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy, and a strong contender even if Vegas isn’t able to finish the job.
While that last part may sound crazy, when taking Fleury’s current playoff run in context, he has been on a level rarely seen in playoff goalies. During the 2002-03 season, the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup, but Jéan-Sebastien Giguère took home the Conn Smythe for his brilliant play. Fleury’s numbers eclipse his. For further context, in the regular season of that season, the average team scored 218 goals, and scoring was down as part of the pre-lockout “Dead Puck” era. Conversely this season, the average number of goals scored was 244, with only four teams falling below that 2002-03 average. Giguère would finish his legendary Stanley Cup Final run with a 1.62 goals against average, five shutouts, and a .945 save percentage.
To add even more comparisons just to show how otherworldly Fleury’s performance has been, the legendary Patrick Roy, the all-time playoff wins leader and objectively one of the best goalies in NHL history, never had a postseason with a save percentage within .10 of Fleury’s current number, topping out at .934 in the 00-01 season. From a goals against average standpoint, Roy’s best playoff year was also that season, where he would finish with a 1.70 GAA.
Perhaps the best comparisons for Fleury’s recent run are the Conn Smythe-winning performances of Tim Thomas in 2010-11 with the Boston Bruins, and Jonathan Quick in 2011-12 with the Los Angeles Kings, but even in these cases, only Tim Thomas may really have the edge currently. Tim Thomas would finish with a tremendous .940 save percentage, to go with a 1.98 goals against average, while facing 849 shots through 25 games. Fleury has achieved his current numbers while facing 505 shots in 15 games. While Jonathan Quick had a terrific .946 save percentage (.001 lower than Fleury as of this writing), and a 1.41 goals against average, he also faced 538 shots in the 20 games that he played. The Vegas Golden Knights have allowed 33.7 shots against per game through 15 playoff games. With the Capitals averaging 32.9 shots per game through 19 playoff games, Fleury will likely far surpass Quick’s shot totals and likely finish somewhere a bit more comparable to Thomas’ final total depending on how long the series stretches.
Marc-André Fleury will be tested by a very skilled Washington Capitals team. As a former Penguin, he remains as an obstacle and a demon to conquer in Alexander Ovechkin’s quest to finally win the Stanley Cup. As a playoff goalie, Fleury has gone beyond redeeming himself for years he didn’t get the job done, and years he was injured. He has been the engine of a deadly and balanced Golden Knights team, and has reminded the hockey world that his status as one of the league’s best goalies hasn’t really changed. He is four wins away from his fourth championship in the Stanley Cup Final, and four wins away from entrenching the Golden Knights into an even more unbelievable place in the league’s mythos. Win or lose, Flower has had a postseason to remember as he continues to remind the world just how dominant he can be when the cards fall into place.
Photos by Getty