It was only the preseason, but Marc-Andre Fleury’s broad, familiar smile was once again on display in his end stall in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room Friday. The 31-year-old netminder had just completed a 23-save shutout to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 1-0.
“I need it; that’s for sure,” Fleury said of the preseason action. “I think it’s just getting back into game shape, getting the timing back. For the summer, you do a lot of shots, like goalie drills – and then in a game, you kind of stand there sometimes without anything to do for a while, and you’ve got to do it for 60 minutes. You have to stay focused through traffic, people crashing the net a little bit.
“It’s good to play.”
For Fleury, it’s also good to be back between the pipes in Pittsburgh. Back on May 22, when he returned from a concussion in a high-stakes Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final and lost in overtime, his crestfallen postgame demeanor was that of a man who knew he might’ve just started his last game for his adopted hometown.
With the emergence of 22-year-old Matt Murray, who reclaimed the net and helped the Penguins win their fourth Stanley Cup, the writing looked to be on the wall for Fleury. Pittsburgh’s goalie of the future had become a viable option right now, and – given Murray’s attractive, entry-level contract and the prospect of losing one of the two in next summer’s expansion draft – most expected Fleury to be on the move this summer.
But the Penguins didn’t get a trade offer they liked enough to move their longtime franchise goalie, who’s been part of the organization since they drafted him first overall in 2003. And that was fine by general manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan, who said they felt comfortable heading into the season with their two netminders splitting time.
Fleury’s comfortable with that, too.
“It’s nice to just go out and be worry-free, and try to enjoy the game.”
“Yeah, for today,” he smiled. “Not much else I can do, right? I’m more of a day-to-day guy. Just try to go with the flow and practice hard, play hard and have fun while doing it. Be a good teammate and see what happens.
“It’s good, I think, for the team. Both guys can play and can win. And it’s going to be a busy schedule, too, at the start.”
As it turns out, the bulk of that early schedule – the first three to six weeks, at least – just fell to Fleury.
With Murray breaking his hand while playing for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey, the Penguins will start the season without their 2016 Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, relying instead on the man who took them there in 2009.
Suddenly, not making a trade this summer looks like a pretty good call.
“It’s unfortunate for Matty; you never would wish to a goalie or anybody else on the team to get hurt,” Fleury said. “The game changes, and things change on the team. How many guys were there at the beginning of the season who weren’t at the end when we won the Cup? You try to be on top of your game as long as you can, contribute to the team to win, and do your best when you have the chance.”
Sullivan was pleased with how Fleury looked in his second preseason outing Friday, an improvement over the three goals on 19 shots he allowed in two periods of work in Detroit a few days before.
“I thought he was tracking the puck really well,” Sullivan said. “He looked really comfortable in there tonight and, obviously, he got the shutout. I thought he was seeing it really well; fighting through the traffic to find pucks.”
“I think when you have two or three months without playing, it feels like you’ve got to start from scratch a little bit to get back into that game rhythm and game timing,” Fleury said.
He’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that now, with 21-year-old Tristan Jarry the frontrunner to handle the occasional off night. When Murray returns, it’ll likely be closer to a 50-50 split than Fleury has been accustomed to in his career.
Again, that’s OK with him – even if he’d prefer to handle the lion’s share of games, like he always has.
“I’m sure Matt is in the same boat, too,” Fleury said. “We both like to play games but, if that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. I’ll have to deal with it and try my best when I’m [in] there.”
And if there comes a point later in the season when it’s time to move on, he’ll deal with that as it comes.
“You never know whether that’s going to happen, and I’ve been very fortunate to play here for a long time since I was young,” Fleury said. “I’ve always said this is my home, and I wish I could play here all my career.
“I’ll try my best to do good to the team, to the organization – and, hopefully, stick around for a long time.”