Tak­ing Ve­gas by storm

Fleury be­com­ing the face of the Golden Knights

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS mtraikos@post­media.com

LAS VE­GAS — The face of the fran­chise has be­come The Flower.

Even in the desert, it is some­what fit­ting. Walk around the Las Ve­gas strip, where a week ago hor­rific tragedy be­fell this city, and you will see bou­quets of flow­ers lin­ing the streets, stick­ing out of cow­boy boots and dis­played in var­i­ous memo­ri­als.

They are ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing the hockey rink, where Marc-An­dre Fleury — “Flower” to his team­mates — has given a city hope dur­ing a dif­fi­cult time.

On Tues­day, the Ve­gas goal­tender stopped 31 of 33 shots to help the Golden Knights to a 5-2 win in their first-ever reg­u­lar sea­son home opener. After three games, they re­main one of only a hand­ful of un­de­feated teams in the NHL. And along with James Neal, who has five of the team’s nine goals, a big rea­son for it has been the rock-solid play of Fleury.

“Flower’s the most im­por­tant guy on the ice and we ap­pre­ci­ate him,” said Neal.

“We were hop­ing he was go­ing to be our back­bone,” said head coach Ger­ard Gal­lant. “So far, he’s been in­cred­i­ble.”

Ad­mit­tedly, this isn’t what Fleury expected. No one could have. When the Golden Knights be­gan the year with a ros­ter full of cast-offs cob­bled to­gether from the ex­pan­sion draft, it was sup­posed to be a long and dif­fi­cult sea­son. Most pre­dicted they would bat­tle Ari­zona, Colorado and New Jersey for last place. That still might hap­pen. The sea­son is only a week old, after all.

But some­thing spe­cial is hap­pen­ing in the desert. Rid­ing a wave of emo­tion fol­low­ing the sense­less shoot­ing deaths of 58 peo­ple last week, the team is 3-0 — “You’re hear­ing sto­ries all over the city about how much spir­its are lifted with just a win,” said de­fence­man Deryk En­gel­land — and it be­gins with Fleury, who is amongst the top-five in the league with a 1.32 goals-against av­er­age and a .963 save per­cent­age.

On Tues­day, Fleury was asked if he could have dreamt this hap­pen­ing.

“I think I would have lied if I said yes,” he said. “But we’ll take it. I have a lot of con­fi­dence in this team. I’m proud of the way the guys are play­ing. They’re bat­tling out there. It’s fun. It’s fun to win those games.”

Sit­ting in his dress­ing room stall after an emo­tional win, Fleury couldn’t stop smil­ing. When it be­came ap­par­ent he would be head­ing to Ve­gas in the sum­mer, he was ner­vous. But he was also ex­cited. The 32-year-old had spent his en­tire ca­reer in Pitts­burgh, where he had just won back-to-back Stan­ley Cups. But with Matt Mur­ray hav­ing as­sumed the No. 1 job in net, Fleury wel­comed the chance to be a starter again, even if he was un­sure what play­ing in Ve­gas would be like.

“A lot of un­knowns,” he said. “I’ve been used to the same things over and over and I was com­fort­able with my team.”

It’s been a tran­si­tion. In Pitts­burgh, he was a house­hold name, but he was also able to fly a bit un­der the radar in a dress­ing room that in­cluded Sid­ney Crosby, Ev­geni Malkin and other star play­ers. In Ve­gas, it’s the op­po­site. He’s the star.

When he walked onto the stage after be­ing an­nounced as the fi­nal pick in the ex­pan­sion draft, fans chanted his name. One even yelled, “I love you,” to which Fleury re­sponded: “I love you, too.”

Since then, the love has grown. Ac­cord­ing to the team store, Fleury’s jersey is the No. 1 seller — “it’s not even close,” said a Golden Knights rep­re­sen­ta­tive — and it is not un­com­mon to see fans walk­ing around in “Flower Power” T-shirts.

As GM Ge­orge McPhee told the NHL Net­work, “We’d like the logo to be the face of our fran­chise, but it’s quickly be­com­ing Marc-An­dre Fleury.”

On the ice, he’s been just as in­stru­men­tal. Fleury, who was named the NHL’s sec­ond star of the week, stopped 45 of 46 shots against the Dal­las Stars to help Ve­gas win their his­toric reg­u­lar-sea­son opener last Fri­day. And he fol­lowed it up with back-to-back wins against the Coy­otes.

“When we se­lected Marc in the ex­pan­sion draft, we knew we got a great goal­tender and a great per­son,” said Gal­lant. “He’s a good team leader for us. I think all of our play­ers re­ally be­lieve in our goalie. He’s been A1 the first three games and that’s what we ex­pect from him … He’s go­ing to be the leader of our team.”

Sud­denly, a team ev­ery­one expected the worst from has be­come the league’s best story of the early sea­son. Can it con­tinue? Maybe not.

But thanks to Fleury, there is life in the desert.

“Def­i­nitely a good feel­ing,” said Fleury. “It’s not easy to build a team from scratch and pick­ing guys from other teams and other leagues … We know we’re prob­a­bly not the best team around, so we have to work hard ev­ery night to have a chance and to keep im­prov­ing.”

ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IM­AGES

Marc-An­dre Fleury greets fans and signs au­to­graphs as he ar­rives at the Ve­gas Golden Knights’ in­au­gu­ral home opener on Mon­day.

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