Thank You, Fleury
Holding back tears, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as the media members huddled around his locker, could not have imagined his time as a Penguin would end the way it did.
None of us did.
The 32 year-old Fleury, who after winning his third Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh, waived his no-movement clause, is most likely heading to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft coming up June 21.
Everyone knew for a while that Pittsburgh's first overall pick in 2003 was not coming back for the 2017-18 season, but as winter turned to spring, nobody saw Fleury playing a major part in the Penguins second-straight Stanley Cup championship.
Matt Murray, still technically a rookie, was starting a majority of games over the veteran who is almost ten years older than him throughout the season. A spectacular performance in last year's playoffs when Fleury was dealing with a concussion raised Murray's status and he soon became the number one goalie this season.
When Murray suffered a torn hamstring in warmups of Game 1 in the Penguins first round series against Columbus, fans saw Fleury back in the net. Nobody knew what to expect.
Fleury played well in the first round, as Pittsburgh eliminated the Blue Jackets in 5 games, but it was the series against the Washington Capitals where Fleury reminded both fans and cynics, that he could still get the job done. Without him, the Capitals find a way to get through the second round and are playing Ottawa in the conference finals.
Mike Sullivan's decision to go back to a now-healthy Murray after the Senators beat Pittsburgh 5-1 in Game 3 was met with criticism, but Fleury, who had been a model teammate during this changing of the guard between the pipes, went with it.
Murray may have been the man in net, but it was Fleury who got them over the biggest obstacle, which was Washington.
In this final week of Fleury as a Penguin, it provides a chance for the goalie from Sorel-Tracey, Quebec and fans to reflect.
I remember attending opening night in 2003 and watching Fleury make his NHL debut. It was October 10, 2003 at Mellon Arena against the Los Angeles Kings. The Penguins were attempting to rebuild a team that they had to deconstruct due to bankruptcy a few years earlier.
The opening night premiere of 29 was not the most ideal. The Kings won in a 3-0 shutout. He appeared in 21 games his rookie year, bouncing back-and-forth between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre Scranton and was one of five goalies who started at least one game that season, in which the Penguins were 23-47-8-4.
Following the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, Fleury played 29 more games his second year as the Penguins had drafted two players that would provide an offensive boost. Those two being Evgeni Malkin in 2004 and Sidney Crosby in 2005.
Fleury was 17-41-8 in his first two seasons. In 2007, the Penguins, who were building through the draft and were rescued by the new salary cap, saw an incredible turnaround, and that was a reflection of Fleury's play. He went 40-16-9 that season, as Pittsburgh made the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Flash forward to 2009. The year before, the Penguins lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. Now, they had forced Game 7 back in Detroit and were hanging onto a 2-1 lead with 6.5 seconds to go.
A face-off to the left of Fleury was won by the Red Wings. A shot by Dan Cleary finds its way through a bunch of bodies get a piece of Fleury and creates a rebound for captain Niklas Lidstrom.
That diving save by Fleury would keep the game from overtime and seal the first Stanley Cup for Pittsburgh since 1992.
Most fans can tell you where they were when that happened. I was two feet from my television and began cheering the minute I saw Fleury made the save.
For the younger Penguin fans, that is there first memory of a Stanley Cup win. I was alive when they won in 1991 and 1992, but I was just shy of my 2nd and 3rd birthdays.
The first one is always the sweetest. That 2009 championship was, and Flower, along with Max Talbot's two goals, became a Game 7 hero.
The Penguins were seen as a franchise that would win several more Cups as the 2010s began. That didn't happen, as the Penguins suffered several first and second round exits before getting back to the final in 2016. The closest they got was in 2013 when the Bruins swept them in the lockout-shortened season.
Of course, Fleury took his share of criticism from fans looking for an easy scapegoat. Heck, he had his fair share of critics in these final few seasons with the team. If those people haven't learned their lesson after this spring, they never will.
This post could go on for ages, talking about Fleury's time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but I will simply say that Pittsburgh was lucky to have had a player like him.
Hockey players are said to be some of most personable players in pro sports. Fleury, along with Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang, who make up the remaining players from that first Cup win in 2009, are a fantastic representation of what this team has been for over a decade.
That class of 2009 will get smaller this summer and this photo will hit you in the feels a little bit.
The two guys on the end could be gone by the end of the summer, bringing that quartet down to a trio.
If you haven't yet, take a listen to what Fleury had to say on Thursday.
Now wipe those tears away. We're almost done.