Fleury finally Vezina Trophy finalist with Golden Knights

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Marc-Andre Fleury lost the Vegas Golden Knights’ No. 1 goalie job to Robin Lehner in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. He backed up Lehner in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Second Round against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver on Sunday.

Fleury hasn’t officially been named the starter for Game 2 there Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) with the Golden Knights coming off a 7-1 loss. Coach Peter DeBoer stayed consistent Tuesday in not naming a starter, though he essentially acknowledged it would be Fleury.

“You know I’m not going to answer that,” DeBoer said. “I think it’s probably obvious what the answer is, but I’m not going to answer just because that’s been my policy. As stupid as that sounds, that’s what we’re going to continue to do. But he is excited to play.”

The context makes the news Tuesday all the more impressive: Fleury has been named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the first time in his 17-season NHL career.

Fleury wasn’t considered the best goalie on his own team a few months ago. He’s still competing with Lehner, a Vezina finalist himself in 2018-19.

Yet at 36, Fleury has played the best hockey of his career, which includes 492 regular-season wins — third in NHL history behind his idols Martin Brodeur (691) and Patrick Roy (551) — and three Stanley Cup championships.

Finally, the NHL’s general managers voted him at least one of the top three goalies in the game. He is a finalist with Philipp Grubauer of the Avalanche and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“It’s pretty cool,” Fleury said. “I never go into a season thinking I want to be a nominee or finalist for the Vezina. I think my thoughts are always about winning games and winning in the playoffs. That’s always my mindset. I’m not looking for individual awards, but this is definitely very flattering, and I’m honored to be among these guys.”

Video: A discussion on the Vezina Trophy finalists

There is much to admire about Fleury, from his talent to his fun-loving attitude. But this is an occasion to appreciate his resilience and class. 

Fleury had his ups and downs in 13 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning one championship as a starter in 2009, one as a backup in 2016 and one while filling both roles at times in 2017. He was exposed in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, and it says it all that he was still beloved in Pittsburgh and instantly the face of the franchise in Vegas.

His first season with Vegas, an expansion team in its inaugural season, he put up the best goals-against average (2.24) and save percentage (.927) of his NHL career. Yes, the Golden Knights were the best expansion team in NHL history, but he was a huge reason. 

Perhaps all that prepared him for what was to come.

From owner Bill Foley on down, the Golden Knights are about one thing: winning the Cup. DeBoer was hired Jan. 15, 2020, and took a fresh look at everything with no past loyalties. Lehner was acquired Feb. 24, 2020. DeBoer said he would play the goalie who gave Vegas the best chance to win.

Last season, it was Lehner. But even though Lehner signed a five-year, $25 million contract Oct. 3, Fleury dug in.

And this season, the goalie who has given Vegas the best chance to win has been Fleury. He set new bests for GAA (1.98) and save percentage (.928) in the regular season and has the best GAA (1.71) of his NHL playoff career. His .931 save percentage in the playoffs is the second-best of his NHL career, behind the .933 he had in 2008, when the Penguins made the Stanley Cup Final.

“He faced some adversity there last year, and you know, instead of laying down, he showed up in camp and fought and battled and turned it into what I think should be a Vezina Trophy,” DeBoer said.

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DeBoer said the Golden Knights started Lehner in Game 1 against the Avalanche because Fleury had just played a hard, emotional seven-game series against the Minnesota Wild, Fleury had one day to recover, and it was a chance to make sure Lehner got in a game and stayed sharp because they knew they would need him.

“I think it was tiring for the whole team, and I think it showed a bit in Game 1,” Fleury said. “I knew from the beginning that Robin would play some games, and I feel bad Robin was thrown into that one, to the lions, where we didn’t have our best game there and they had their best one.”

Once again, all class.

“In typical Marc-Andre fashion, I congratulated him [on the Vezina nomination] today, and he immediately talked about it being a team award and how well the team played in front of him,” DeBoer said. “But you can’t overlook his contributions to what we’re doing and the season he had.”

You can’t overlook the circumstances, either.

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