The magic of Marc-Andre Fleury and what it could mean for the Wild
That wizardry has been a mainstay in the NHL for the past couple of decades, arriving this week in Minnesota via a blockbuster trade
ST. PAUL — Minnesota Wild center Ryan Hartman promised himself he would not go glove again.
Not after his first shot was snatched out of thin air, revving up the sellout crowd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and certainly not after his second shot disappeared again without a trace.
Yet there he was in the first round of the NHL playoffs, on May 16, 2021, skating into the offensive zone with what looked like another surefire scoring chance.
“I see the glove is open,” Hartman recalled. “I go glove again. And he makes a save. It’s little mind games like that.”
This is the magic of Marc-Andre Fleury.
The 37-year-goaltender keeps pixie dust tucked away in his trapper, capable of sprinkling it on a sequence at a moment’s notice.
That wizardry has been a mainstay in the NHL for the past couple of decades, permeating locker rooms in Pittsburgh and Las Vegas, with a brief stop in Chicago before arriving this week in Minnesota via a blockbuster trade.
It stirs doubt in opponents and inspires confidence in teammates. It ignites crowds at home and silences them on the road.
“These are shots that could be changing the game — and he swings it back the other way because of his ridiculous saves,” Wild winger Marcus Foligno said. “It’s definitely great to have him as a teammate now.”
For everything he has accomplished throughout his career — the future first-ballot hall of famer is a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the third-most wins (511) in NHL history — there’s something unquantifiable that makes Fleury so special.
He is the ultimate showman on the ice, well aware that if he windmills a glove save, or poses for an extra second, he can singlehandedly send the home crowd into oblivion.
“Some guys give me crap because I roll my glove and stuff,” Fleury said with a laugh. “That’s just how I’ve always played. That’s how I have fun. I feel like if I’m having fun, then usually I play a better game.”
As do those around him, like former Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby, the superstar who played for more than a decade alongside Fleury, and raved about his infectious demeanor.
“I think people can see that, whether it’s fans or teammates or coaches,” Crosby said. “Just the way he plays the position is fun for people to watch.”
‘WE MIGHT NEVER SCORE’
After a 45-minute stalemate in Game 1 against the Golden Knights last season, up-and-coming Wild star sniper Kirill Kaprizov slithered his way into the slot. He caught a pass in close quarters, pulled the puck to his forehand, and had a wide-open net with Fleury way out of position.
Or so he thought.
With a logic-defying lunge, Fleury transformed into a Cirque du Soleil contortionist, instinctively stretching his glove behind his back before steering Kaprizov’s shot away with his blocker.
In that moment, Hartman couldn’t help but start to fear the worst. He had been down this road before, and Fleury’s performance was starting to conjure up nightmares of postseasons past.
For the rest of his life, Hartman will remember getting swept by the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. He was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks at the time, when they finished the 2016-17 season as the best team in the Western Conference.
They were shut out in both games to open the series. At home.
“The first shift we dump it in and it hits the stanchion and (Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne) makes a stick save from behind the net,” Hartman said. “The puck should be going in. It’s like, ‘We might never score.’ ”
That’s how the Wild started to feel after Fleury’s save on Kaprizov last season.
Which is exactly what Fleury has been doing to opponents since the Penguins selected him the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. As consistent as he has been in the crease, Fleury’s ability to make saves he probably shouldn’t has always been something that sets him apart.
Though the Golden Knights actually lost Game 1 last season after a deflected shot found the back of the net in overtime, Fleury dazzled in Game 2, did just enough in Game 3 and pitched a shutout Game 4 to put the Wild on the brink of elimination.
There was a particular sequence during which Fleury denied Wild winger Kevin Fiala on back-to-back-to-back scoring chances in front. That prompted Fiala to smash his stick on the crossbar in exasperation.
“It’s frustrating,” Fiala said at that time. “It’s great opportunities that aren’t going in.”
More than 10 months later, Fiala has no problem acknowledging that Fleury had his number in that series. He also theorized that since he looked up to Fleury as a kid, Fleury probably has been occupying some space in his head without him even knowing it.
“Ever since I got to the league, I felt like I struggled to score on him,” Fiala said. “Maybe it’s a little star struck.”
‘THAT’S FUN TO PLAY IN FRONT OF’
It was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and Red Wings, and Fleury knew he was less than 10 seconds away from his first title.
As he tracked the puck off the draw, and dropped down to a butterfly to make a clutch pad save, Fleury quickly realized he was out of position. With the puck bouncing toward Red Wings star Nicklas Lidstrom on the doorstep, Fleury knew he wasn’t going to have enough time to fully reset.
So he squared himself to the shooter as best he could, and at the very last second, left his skates like he was diving in front of a bullet.
He made the save, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and the legend of “Flower” was born.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin said he still gets “queasy” when he watches the replay. He was teammates with Fleury during the 2008-09 season.
“Just to have the puck pop out like that with however much time was left, and to have one of the greatest players of all time coming down to get it, I still don’t how Flower got in front of it,” Guerin said. “Everyone in Pittsburgh calls it the Secret Service Save because it literally looks like he’s diving in front of a bullet to save the President.”
That ability to make the biggest save at the biggest moment has helped Fleury endear himself to teammates throughout his career. They can always count on him to to come through, even when they might not be at the top of their game.
And sometimes all it takes is a highlight-reel save from Fleury to get everyone else locked in.
That’s something Wild defenseman Alex Goligoski came to realize more than a decade ago when he was Fleury’s teammate with the Penguins. There was something about his saves that gave everyone around him confidence.
“He makes those saves that get the crowd out of their seat, and he does it with a little swagger,” Goligoski said. “A big save can turn a game just like a big fight or a big hit or a big goal. When stuff like that happens, it gets the bench up, for sure. That’s fun to play in front of.”
‘I’M STILL ONE OF THE GUYS’
To this day, Fleury maintains that the best save of his career was his denial of Lidstrom to win the Stanley Cup. That said, his robbery of Maple Leafs center Nic Petan on Nov. 19, 2019 very well might be the most impressive.
The rebound bounced directly to Petan with Fleury outside of the blue paint, and what looked like an easy goal in a rather innocuous midseason game morphed into hockey lore.
In an act of desperation, Fleury went prime Derek Jeter, stretching his body like the Yankees shortstop and snaring the puck with his glove. The home crowd went berserk.
There’s a larger-than-life gravitational pull to Fleury that stems from these snapshot moments. He has existed in the abstract for opponents for much of his career, a living legend whose reputation precedes him no matter where he goes.
Just ask Fiala, who was so excited when the Wild traded for Fleury this week that he skipped his pregame nap.
“Honestly, I don’t think I slept a minute because I couldn’t wait to see Fleury,” Fiala said. “Just looking at him, he’s in our locker room, it’s kind of not realistic.”
Not that Fleury buys into his own hype. Though he’s flattered by the sentiments from his new teammates, he doesn’t think he’s bigger than anyone else.
“I’m still one of the guys,” Fleury said. “Maybe I have a few more white hairs than they do.”
Those subtle quips are just as much a part of Fleury as his emphatic glove saves. He never takes himself too seriously.
To that point, Crosby loves to tell a certain story about how Fleury once tripped while running onto the ice during the Stanley Cup Final.
“He got up with a big smile,” Crosby said. “It’s a huge stage, Stanley Cup Final, and he still finds a way to laugh something like that off.”
All part of his magic.