Wednesday, May 16, 2018 | 11:30 p.m.
With their 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday night, the Golden Knights are two wins away from the finals, and six wins away from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
If they do, the statue they build in front of T-Mobile Arena should be of Marc-Andre Fleury’s lunging, gold-plated body wondrously suspended in the air.
The physics of constructing that statue will be almost as mind-boggling as the saves he made on Jets star Mark Scheifele that it will be modeled after.
At one point in the third period, Winnipeg ripped off 13 consecutive shots on goal without a single shot by Vegas. Trailing 3-2, the Jets were desperately fighting to tie the crucial Game 3, but Fleury wouldn’t allow it.
Near the end of that stretch, Scheifele — who leads the NHL with 14 goals this postseason — had two grade-A chances to score. He received a cross-ice pass from Blake Wheeler and ripped it into the bottom left corner of the net.
It was the perfect place to shoot — as far from Fleury as possible, and along the ice so he can’t simply reach his blocker over.
“I had a great view. I was right on the bench there on line with the play,” teammate James Neal said. “His toe came out so fast.”
Just to track the puck as it squirted through a kneeling Brayden McNabb is impressive on its own, but Fleury kicked the puck with his skate for one of the most spectacular saves of the season, and he wasn’t done. The puck rebounded right back to Scheifele, only now Fleury was sprawled out on his stomach and had slid out of his crease.
Scheifele fired the puck into what appeared to be a wide-open net, but Fleury dove head first in the motion you’d expect to see from a bodyguard protecting his boss from a bullet.
The puck hit Fleury in the chest, McNabb cleared it out of harm's way and Fleury rose to his feet and into a celebratory leap off the ice.
“He had a lot of time and some room to shoot so I just tried to get as much body in front of it and I got a piece, so I was happy about that,” Fleury said. “They were good chances and I was happy to get (the saves), especially that second one. It was emotion — I was having a little fun in there.”
Golden Knights defenseman Luca Sbisa watched the replay of Fleury’s saves on a television in the locker room after the game and shook his head in disbelief.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I really don’t know how me makes those saves. I’m glad he’s on our team and he’s been doing that all year and he’s been winning us games.”
Fleury’s postseason has been one for the ages. If Vegas ends up winning it all, he’ll be a shoo-in for the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the most valuable player of the playoffs.
His save percentage of .951 is the best in NHL playoff history for a goalie with at least 10 games. His four shutouts have already surpassed his career-high in Pittsburgh for an entire postseason, and he won three Cups with the Penguins.
“He can’t do it by himself,” Erik Haula said.
But Haula may be wrong. After watching Fleury's brilliance in Wednesday night’s third period, I’m not totally convinced he can’t single-handedly win a game. Or leap tall buildings in a single bound.
“We kind of hung him out to dry there and he won that game for us,” Haula said. “He’s our backbone. He has been all year and he’s probably the best goalie in the league right now.”
Fleury won’t admit his unceremonious exit from Pittsburgh is partially fueling his astonishing play this season, but it has to be in the back of his mind. He’s still playing, leading an expansion team to hockey’s promised land while Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the man who replaced him — Matt Murray — are watching from their couches.
“Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” Fleury said. “I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”
He’s done more than give the Golden Knights a chance to win on most nights. In most cases, he’s almost given them no choice but to win.
“I’ve been saying it from Day One: When you get Flower as your goaltender, you’re going to have chances to win games,” Neal said. “He’s been doing it all playoffs and all of his life. It was a great save in a key moment of the game, a game saver.”
In the midst of chaos, Fleury — or Flower as his teammates affectionately call him — is in his own world.
“He's made unbelievable saves,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “That's Fleury. He's been great all playoffs, he's been great all year for us. He's a guy that has fun out there. I'm sweating on the bench yelling my head off and I look down there and he's just having fun.”
Midway through the second period, a brawl broke out in Fleury’s crease following a whistle. He stood calmly by while players from both teams punched, grabbed and tied themselves in a violent pretzel on the ice.
Fleury reached into the dogpile and tickled Jets captain Wheeler’s ear with his finger, causing Wheeler to swipe at him and look back in confusion.
“I did that?” Fleury said, laughing when confronted about the incident by the press. “There are cameras everywhere. I was just sitting there, he was sitting there, people were fighting and I thought I’d have a little smile by myself.”
From his calming demeanor to his clutch, superhuman saves, Fleury is exactly what the Golden Knights need him to be.
The Jets thoroughly outplayed the Golden Knights in the third period and had every chance to win the game. Instead Vegas has a 2-1 lead in the series with another game at home on Friday. If Fleury keeps it up for another series and a half, he’ll be the first Golden Knight to ever lift the Stanley Cup and be immortalized in a statue in Toshiba Plaza.
And when they finally make a movie about this magical season, Fleury will be on the cover.