Marc-Andre Fleury is again feeling the heat as he starts the season as No. 1 for the Pittsburgh Penguins

The spotlight is once again home to Marc-Andre Fleury. Can he keep it? Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- For more than a decade, this has been his net, his job, his town.

A decade of superlative goaltending that has, in spite of the odd wobble, established Marc-Andre Fleury as one of the great goaltenders of his generation.

Consider: At the start of this season, the 31-year-old is 18th among all NHL goalies with 357 wins.

Let's imagine he plays four more years and averages 25 wins a season -- a paltry amount, given his historical level of consistency -- and that gives him 457 wins, which would put him fourth all time. If he has relatively good health, he's more likely to end up third all time, behind only Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. Throw in a couple of Stanley Cups (at least), a place on Canada's Olympic roster in 2010 and the next thing you know, "Hello, Hall of Fame."

And still, and still, for someone this constant, this sure in this most passionate of hockey towns, things are anything but certain and sure for Fleury as the Pittsburgh Penguins begin defense of their 2016 Stanley Cup championship.

Yes, he was tabbed to start Thursday night for the banner-raising game against the Washington Capitals, just as he was after the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven memorable games in the 2009 finals.

Make no mistake, this is different.

Fleury knows it. The fans know it. Heir apparent to the Penguins net, Matt Murray, who is recovering from a broken hand sustained while playing for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey, knows it.

"I knew it would be a little bit different from what I'm used to," Fleury admitted, the trademark grin firmly in place. "But I was glad to be able to come back to Pittsburgh, to be able to play with this team and play for this city again. And I'll try my best try to win some games. It's all I can do, really."

Murray started last season in the American Hockey League and then came on in relief of Fleury after Fleury sustained a concussion late in the regular season. Then, Murray became the story of the '16 playoffs. He was injured in the final regular season game but returned for the second game of the Pens' first-round series against the New York Rangers. He yielded one start the rest of the way, that in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in which Fleury took the loss, and turned in a .923 save percentage behind a 15-6 record.

A few days before he celebrated a Stanley Cup championship, Murray turned 22. And then turned the Pittsburgh goaltending situation on its ear.

Or did he?

What seemed assured, that Fleury would begin this season as last season ended -- sitting on the end of the Penguin bench with a ball cap on his head -- has now been thrown into disarray.

Murray is nursing his broken hand and Fleury, as he has been pretty much for the past dozen years, will be the man when the Penguins begin another pursuit of greatness.

It wasn't always easy for Fleury last spring, but he was universally lauded by teammates and observers for his deportment during the playoff run.

"I've always been used to playing, to be in there, so some days were a little tougher," he admitted. "But as a teammate, I wouldn't want anybody to see it or to think about that, to think about me. I just wanted them to focus on their game and not be a distraction for anybody. At the end, like I said, we won, so it was all worth it."

Mike Rupp played with six NHL teams and some of the game's greatest goalies -- including Fleury -- before retiring. He spoke with Fleury during the finals and was impressed but not surprised by the netminder's demeanor in the face of having been supplanted as the No. 1.

"Marc-Andre Fleury is legitimately the most kind, probably the best guy I've ever met in hockey," said Rupp, who's now a national analyst. "He is that. And everybody thinks that and says that. He's just the ultimate teammate."

Let's not confuse being a good teammate with not caring who starts.

Fleury wants very much to again be the man.

Whether that's here in Pittsburgh or somewhere else, that remains to be seen.

Former teammate Colby Armstrong, also a national broadcast analyst, understands the mental toll this kind of uncertainty can have on a player.

"That's what the game's all about, that's the hardest part of the game," Armstrong said. "I know in playing with him and dealing with him and even just talking to him, he's a proud guy that wants to do the right thing and be a good teammate and is also competitive and wants to have that net. I respect that."

Close your eyes and you can still see Fleury sliding across to block Nicklas Lidstrom's last-second bid to tie Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena in June 2009. GM Jim Rutherford can. He was running Carolina at the time, his Hurricanes having been swept by Fleury and the Penguins in four games in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.

If the outside view might be of a team with a potential goaltending controversy Rutherford, who played 457 NHL games as a goaltender, views things somewhat differently.

"What I worry about as a GM is if you don't have one goalie," Rutherford said. "So, why would I worry about having two good ones?"

Indeed, when was the last time a team entered a season with two goaltenders who had guided their teams to Stanley Cup wins?

Rupp, for one, believes the Penguins are starting the season with the best tandem in the business.

Rutherford might have to make a hard decision at some point as the season moves along, but he doesn't have to make that decision today.

"I have a very good veteran goalie and I have a very good young goalie," he said. "It'll play itself out."


And until that narrative reveals itself, Fleury is content to try to enjoy this as much as possible.

"It's tough because I get reminded by people coming to the rink and stuff with mics," he said with another chuckle. "So, yeah, sometimes you have a little thought what's going to happen and stuff. But I have to remind myself to enjoy the day, enjoy what we have now. It's going to be good here and whatever happens, happens.

"I just want to be normal," he added. "I don't want to overanalyze, overthink stuff. I just want to have a nice season, go play, enjoy the guys at the rink, outside the rink."

Surely the man who has owned this net, this team, this town for so long deserves that much.